The story of our skin

Adrian and I have recently had some great discussions surrounding ethnicity, race and self-identification. I came across this fantastic article that challenges the way in which we define Blackness here in the States and how people articulate their own identities. It looks at how the world sees us and how we see ourselves.

The very last photo in the series is of a woman named Biany PĂ©rez and I've been thinking about her comments ever since I came across the article over a week ago. She states:

"Most times when people ask me, 'What are you?' I say I'm Black. Although I do identify as Afro-Latina, I'm very careful about saying it because I want you to understand that I'm Black first. Yes, I'm Latina, but I know that my lived experience is not as a Latina. I'm treated as a Black American first. I'm Black first, and it is because of my experience." (Huffington Post)
My experience has mostly been that of a White American. My pale skin, my blue eyes, the rate at which my face turns red under stress and embarassment betray the story within me.  Inside, I am both third generation Mexican-American and White. But outside? Outside I am White. 

My experiences and interactions in the world have varied greatly from those of my own sister, owing mostly to the variations in our skin tones. While I sailed relatively easily through both high school and college, my sister struggled with racist remarks and discrimination. Once, while in college, I confided in a classmate how I struggled with handling racist jokes and comments, particularly when someone discovered that my family was in fact of Mexican descent. Her response? If I didn't tell anyone of my heritage, I wouldn't have a problem because no one would know from looking at me. If I just kept quiet and carried on as the White American that I was perceived to be, I wouldn't have a problem.

In this country of continually mixing cultures and backgrounds, one would think that the notion that skin color tells the whole story would have long ago disappeared. 

In 2014, can I be both White and Mexican American, despite my pale skin and blue eyes? Is there room in our national dialogue for us to not have to choose one? To honor our whole story rather than simplifying it into something more readily pigeon-holed? Is there a space for me to talk about my whole experiences as both a White American and a Mexican American, recognizing that I am, at any given moment, both? And can my sister also be both White American and Mexican American, though her skin tone varies so greatly from my own? 

Are we ready to engage in difficult conversations with difficult questions and even more difficult answers? Is it acceptable yet to check off multiple boxes when confronted with defining ourselves? And are we willing to let go of the idea that we know each other's stories with one glance at our skin?

And will my (one day) children's experiences be defined by the lottery of their genetics or will there be a space to share the complex history of mixing races and cultures and love and languages that eventually led to them?

So tell me, how do you define yourself and what has been your lived experience?

(Note: I do also want to point out the other side to this which is the "What are you?" questions. I have chosen not to write about that because that hasn't been my experience. But perhaps a better thing to say might be, "I'd love to hear about your family" and mostly like not in the first five minutes of meeting someone. And then a good question to ask ourselves would be, why do we feel the need to define that person by racial/cultural identity so quickly and so definitively?)


  1. I am a weird mix of everything that could be pale. My family actually hasn't cared to figure out where we are from which makes me really sad. I wish I could talk about our skin, where we are from or traditions we COULD have.

  2. Eeek! I missed this comment somehow! I think the fact that you don't know where your family is from is a story in and of itself. Some families come to the US and cling to their traditions and culture and language and some come and do their best to separate themselves from that. I think it would be interesting to find out if your ancestors purposely left it all behind or if it happened slowly over time. I think it's worth doing some digging :)

  3. This is really interesting. I've always wondered about this, about "passing" because as a darker-skinned African American woman, I don't get the choice. My skin color and people's perceptions about it are not something that I can choose to bring out when it suits me or put away when it suits me. It's a part of my identity whether or not I want it to be because society has made it so.

    THAT SAID, I also enjoy who I am. I embrace being who I am and I love it. Because I also know I am more than the boxes that people put me in but I also come from a heritage of amazing people who have defied incredible odds. It has shaped my character in so many ways.

    But I also get what you are saying, too. I think it's hard to be in-between when society wants clearly defined answers. Some people don't fit into easily categorized boxes -- in fact, most of us don't. But those times when people do speak poorly or incorrectly about Latinos, I think that's a time to speak up. To say, "Actually, you're speaking about me." Even if they can't see it on the surface, it is a part of who you are and can be an opportunity for people to grow... to realize that maybe the stereotypes and things they believe aren't exactly true. It can be scary, but know that you have an advantage being in the inner-circle and a way of helping people that a clear outsider (with marked differences) would never get.

    Hope this didn't come off harshly! Thank you for speaking about this very emotional/political topic and being so open with your experiences! I appreciate it and the sensitivity and honesty you bring! :)

  4. You didn't come off as harshly at all! I'm so glad you added your experience. I talked about this one time with a good friend and he said much the same as what you're saying. I have the chance to get my foot in places that even my brother and sister might not. And once I'm there, it's my job to do just as you said, to question comments and to offer my experiences and viewpoints. I am proud of where I came from and who my family is and I have a unique perspective to offer.

    And you're right, I had the privilege of not considering my race/ethnicity until I was in high school. That is most certainly the privilege of having white skin and blue eyes. My sister and brother did not have that luxury and my guess is that you did not either.
    All this is to say that our stories and voices are needed. I wonder sometimes how my future children will be received by others since they'll be of mixed background also. I wonder about my niece and my niece/nephew on the way. So much of our experience in this country is determined by genetics. But I want to be open and honest with my children and nieces and nephews about my experiences so they don't feel ashamed or embarrassed or unsafe talking about their own. Children especially need to hear our stories and most adults as well. So thank you for sharing!


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