What It's Like to Be a White Woman of Color
I’m white in race but Latina in ethnicity. Growing up, I never really thought about this distinction.
I knew, of course, that I was Latina. I wasn't ashamed nor proud; sometimes I was embarrassed, like the time my mother made me dress up as a “campesina” (a bizarre and perhaps not very politically correct choice) for Halloween and no one knew what I was supposed to be. Or when I was placed in English as a Second Language (despite the fact that English is my first language) because I was very shy kid, my parents had accents, and I had an unmistakably Latino last name.
But I was never ashamed. It was just a part of who I was.
As I grew older people constantly asked me where I was from. Not quite sure how to respond, I would say “New York.”
“No, but where are from, from — originally?”
And then it would hit me, “Oh. Colombia.” Occasionally this was met with an ignorant remark about drug lords and cocaine, or the slightly less offensive reference to “the most beautiful women in the world.” The more this happened (and it still happens today) I noticed that none of my white peers were asked this question, despite their varied ethnicities.
While sometimes annoying, it still didn’t make me feel fundamentally different. It wasn’t until I started college and met other Latinas my age that it happened. At my predominately white university, there was a small presence of “AHANA” students. They were quick to explain that “AHANA” was not a group, but an acronym for “African, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American.” There were several AHANA-only student groups, activities, and events but, despite being AHANA, I didn’t feel welcome at any of them.
Seeing the AHANA–only spaces on our mostly white campus was the first time I realized that I was both white and Latina. Clearly, joining an AHANA student group wouldn’t ban me from interacting with my white peers but it was making an active choice to identify more with my AHANA peers and I realized the unsettling truth was that I just didn’t.
When you are both white in race and “other” in ethnicity you have the ability to travel between spaces.
Being Latina in white spaces afforded me certain advantages —I was marketable for filling "diversity quotas"; plus I stood out as interesting, cultured, and for whatever reason “beautiful.”
But being white in Latina spaces — whether by fault of my own insecurities or not —left me feeling not “Latina enough.” I wasn’t fluent in the language; I spoke Spanish with an American accent and I was horribly self-conscious about it. I felt that I would be judged harshly for being “too white” as if by virtue of my upbringing in a middle-class, white suburb, I had actively chosen to be a traitor to my ethnic roots. Even using the word “Latina” made me feel like a fraud. For the longest time I couldn’t even say it without using air quotes or adding a bizarre inflection to my voice.
It wasn’t until I discovered feminism that I became more comfortable with my identity. Feminism taught me that racism and sexism were structural as well as individual. I also learned that despite my white racial identity I was classified as “other” in ways that were meant to imply that I was “lesser.” I was finally able to label the exoticism of this “otherness” as objectification. I was confronted with my own white privilege and the very uncomfortable truth that being of a certain socioeconomic standing made me “whiter” than some of my Latina peers. But it was also where I realized that no matter how white I was, I would never be “white enough.”
It was through learning about intersectionality that I realized that in never fully being allowed to occupy either space that I was truly not occupying either. And, in discovering the cracks in the same feminism that brought all of these issues to light, I realized I was neglected by the white mainstream feminist movement while simultaneously not “other” enough to be included in the criticisms led by women of color.
Those who claim that my whiteness erases my otherness are forgetting that the same way white people don’t choose their white privilege and women of color do not choose their “otherness,” I didn’t choose my between-ness. I didn’t choose to identify more with my white peers, by nature of my class, sexual orientation, cisgender status, able-bodied-ness, nationality, in certain spaces: I just did.
I realize that there are people for whom this will never be the case. Even my own mother will never be viewed as white in this country because her accent and nationality trump the white privilege she benefited from in Colombia. But I cannot strip myself of either identity, I cannot choose one and denounce another. I was born into a world that assumes that being either makes all the difference.
But I do have a choice in what I do with my identity as both white and a woman of color. I know that in terms of feminism, both camps have a long way to go in order to achieve solidarity amongst themselves let alone with the other, but I am willing to try. I know that our shared sameness will never trump the ways in which we are different, and I’m not asking you to pretend that it will. All that I am asking is that you make some space for me in your space because — whether you realize it or not —I’m already there.