This piece was originally published in The Daily Beast.
During a typical bout of feminist media carousing, I encountered an article that instantly triggered my gag reflex: “Lady Gaga’s New Low: Why “Burqa Swag” Needs to STOP.” Clearly the article needs no more explanation: as if having the white women of Femen telling Arab women that they need to pound their naked breasts in public for so-called liberation isn’t enough, now a white American pop star is using Arab women’s “tool of oppression” as a five second fashion statement in one of her concerts, Like I said, gagging, everywhere. Not to mention that I was till reeling from Miley’s senseless and unapologetic appropriation of black culture (and my own weird guilt for having the song loop endlessly in my head.) I wrote a tweet out of that frustration:
Almost instantly I got two replies with the same hashtag that caused a global upheaval within the feminist community.
Reading all of these responses forced me into an introspective wave of uncertainty over my own racial identity. I have been carrying with a stunted confusion about how I do and how I should identify. The questions burned deeper with every tweet: was I coming to #SolidartityIsForWhiteWomen as a white woman or as a woman of color? This question lingers throughout the various social spaces I inhabit in my life, sliding within a spectrum of proudly of color to undeniably white shifting through my own awareness of what boxed and limiting racial profiles like WHITE and WOC fail to define me.
For all “official” accounts and purposes, I am a first generation Mexican immigrant. I was born in Mexico City to a father who is fully Mexican and a mother who is bi-racial (my grandfather was Mexican and my grandmother is American). I emigrated to the United States at a young age, and thanks to my grandmother’s American birth right, gained American citizenship shortly after. From this telling, my claim to a Latina-based voice of color would appear legitimate. However, if i was honest with myself, my racial identity is questionable at best. Although my father is Mexican, through and through, his family—my family—comes from a land owning ancestry of Spanish descent. And my grandmother, who grew up in Brooklyn, has blonde hair and blue eyes. Basically, even though I am a Mexican immigrant, I am inarguably white. This fact would hit my like a ton of bricks even before I could verbalize its unsettling-ness. In middle school I would participate in Thanksgiving food drives for the migrant communities of South Florida. There, the faces of the Mexican migrant mothers who received the bags of canned beans and dried pasta were unrecognizable from my own—pale, legal, educated, wealthy. There, I did not feel, and never claimed to be, a woman of color.
This ambiguity was further confided in the communities I grew up in. For one, race is culturally understood—not necessarily experienced— differently in Mexico. I have talked about this internal identity conflict with my parents, who often are confused by inability to reconcile my whiteness with my Mexican heritage. To them the questions of racial identity and ethnic features aren’t divisive. In Mexico, as they tell me there is no “race.” There are levels of skin coloring, but this translates less into a racial division, as is seen in the United States with “people of color” and “white people,” and more into levels of “attractiveness” or “beauty” (white having a higher level of attractiveness.) I remember comments from my grandfather that he “bettered the family” by marrying my grandmother, a white woman. The implications are here are too painfully obvious to deny.
Once in the States, I went to a high school that was overwhelmingly homogenous. With the exception of a handful of kids, my whole school was white. And the majority of those white students had partial, if not full, Latino descent. Not only was race never a conversation of consideration, but a Latino background and white privilege were compounded, to the point where there was basically no distinction between being Latino and being white. In that environment, I was the privileged norm.
This was of course if I was read just as Latina. When I revealed I was in fact Mexican, and not Cuban or Puerto Rican like most people assumed, a flood of racist jokes about my burrito, sombrero, or lawnmower would typically and tirelessly follow. To this I would role my eyes, inform the perpetrators that not only was I documented (this seemed like the most important distinction to separate myself from those other illegales) but also proud of my Mexican heritage. I latched on to Frida Kahlo from an early age as a true Mexicana, prideful and deliberate in her presentation, with her indigenous fashions and seemingly Aztec, or at least certainly ethnically marked, flair. Of course, I didn’t consider then that Frida herself was bi-racial—her father of German descent—and although her ubiquitous unibrow marked her looks as “exotic,” she still got the beauty marks of passing as fair skinned, much like myself.
All this to say, that up to my time in high school, even though I knew I was Mexican and immigrant, I also knew that I was white. If there was some ambiguity, there was barely any internal conflict. This all changed when I went to Brown and was confronted with my (lack of) race. I received a pamphlet from the Third World Center as an incoming freshman and was frankly confused. What could I possibly add to a conversation about race and oppression? How could I make a space that seemed to belong to students who had truly lived racial injustice any safer with my pampered white Latina privilege? Even the idea of joining the Hispanic students group seemed strange—in Miami there was no “separate group” for Latinos. I rejected the TWC invitation, disavowing my Latino background not out of shame, like my family members did when they attempted to better the bloodline by marrying lighter, but out of a feeling of insincerity and usurpery.
If in high school I held onto my Mexican ethnicity while benefiting from my pale complexion, at Brown I found that my cultural past gave me more and more “color” than I was ready to assume. When I was first meeting the kids in my dorm, I would introduce myself as simple, nondescript Ana. But once the long-winded and accented Ana Cecilia Alvarez Ortiz emerged, so did a misplaced privilege. At Brown, in my mostly white group of friends, my cultural flavor, my bilingual ability, and my immigrant status, tanned my paleness with an air of exoticism and afforded me the particular “voice” of a (supposed) woman of color. In these spaces I was a non-threatening person of color; a visually palatable and pleasing face combined with a cultural awareness that added a certain sensitivity and authenticity to an otherwise largely homogenous crowd. I felt like my Mexican identity, my status as a “person of color” gave my narrative more weight, as if somehow because “my people” had been historically oppressed, the institutional white guilt of the University gave my “othered” voice a certain privilege. I was allowed to talk about race as if I hadn’t grown up white. I was allowed to separate myself from “those white chicks” and instead claim legitimacy when I donned stereotypically ethnic patterns. This shift became especially salient in my sexual relations with partners. If in Mexico or Miami, my whiteness put me at the top tier of beauty, at Brown my fiery Latina side made me desirable because of my difference. In these spaces, feeling like I somehow benefited from my cultural roots made me feel even more guilt and fraudulence when I entered spaces dedicated to talking about racism and oppression.
In her essay “A White Woman Of Color” Dominican writer Julia Alvarez describes an almost identical experience of the contrasting effects of ethnicity and race as a Latina immigrant. In her Dominican Republic, although race was coded interns of beauty—her “white white” sister being the most prettiest, while her older sister, with coarser hair, falling behind—skin color was not compounded with a different racial claim. It was much more a marker of class or education than it was a separate identity. Once she came the the States, Alvarez describes her confusion about having to check off WHITE or HISPANIC in forms (what is Hispanic mean anyway?) choosing OTHER instead. In her process of acculturation, she began to disavow many cultural aspects of hr Dominican background, at in that same process, felt she was becoming whiter, as if her loss of ethnic connection to her homeland that comes from immigration and acculturation changed the physical complexion of her skin. But in a place where race and ethnicity are compounded, and the phrase “woman of color” is touted as a separate experience from “white woman,” disavowing one’s culture can also mean changing camps to the white tents. For Alvarez it was the words of women of color, like Maxine Hong Kingston, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morisson that reminded her she wasn’t part of an “either/or” racial category and began to reconcile her inability to feel she was a “real” Dominican because of her skin color. She eloquently concludes:
“What I cam to understand and accept and ultimately fight for in my writing was the reality that ethnicity and race are not fixed constructs or measurable quantities. What constitutes our ethnicity and our race—once there is literally no common ground beneath us to define it—evolves as we seek to define and re define ourselves in new contexts. My Latino-ness is not something someone can take away form me or leave me out of a definition. It is in my blood: it comes from that mixture of biology, culture native, language, and experience that makes me a different American from one whose family comes from Ireland, or Poland, or Italy. My Latino-ness is also a political choice. I am choosing to hold onto my ethnicity and native lame even though I can “pass.” I am choosing to color my American-ness with my Dominican-ness eve though it cam in a light shade of skin color.”
I still struggle with reconciling my ethnic past with my racial privilege. I cannot discard my whiteness, yet I refuse to be marked as “less Mexican” because of my complexion. Yet I no longer want to shy away from conversations about race out of my own fear of inadequacy. I have learned to adopt and address many definitions of race within me. Regarding skin color I am a “race” (white); regarding ethnicity I am a “race” (Mexicana); regarding cultural experience I am a “race” (immigrant). My racial makeup and identity is as contradictory as the many physical distinctions and cultural notions that make up the concept of race. It is black and white.
This all being said, when I encounter debates in feminism divided by such ridge racial lines, the labeling of issues and of feminist as “of color” or “white” feels all the more misplaced. I am in no way suggesting that the issues brought up by WoC in #SolidartityIsForWhiteWomen are less legitimate, or that white women have an equal claim to comment and not just sit down and listen. Moreover, I think that a conversation about feminism can no longer not include questions of race—and class, and sexual orientation, and gender identity, and education, and ability. I do however hope that #SolidartityIsForWhiteWomen evolves into a more nuanced conversation that takes into account the various spectrums and specificities surrounding race and ethnicity within gender justice, instead of lumping feminists into “white” and “WoC” warring factions. My ethnicity and racial mix have shown me that privilege comes in many forms. My feminism has showed me that productive growth can come out ambiguity. I am a white woman of color. That can mean different things in different contexts. But what it does definitely claim is that very legitimacy to claim; to have empathy with my WoC sisters and to take into account my own white privilege in their grievances.
By: Ana Cecilia Alvarez, Blog Managing Editor