(SeLoFest17 Post: Day 10, click here for all prompts so far)
I learned racism in the United States.
When I was a baby, my parents and I lived in Martinique, an island in the Caribbean that is an overseas region of France. I don’t remember anything about it in my conscious mind, but combined with the fact that by the time I was 3 we had moved to Dominican Republic, another island, and that I stayed there until I was 7, I feel like that should not be culturally or psychologically ignored.
When I was 5, I started to attend a French school in Dominican Republic, as my parents did not want me to grow up not knowing my paternal tongue. My classmates were a continuation of what I had known my entire short life. People came in different colors, and different shapes. As little girls, we grew up very affectionate, physical, touching each others’ hair, grabbing strands and braiding our hair together. I was completely unaware of racism, as a half white half latina 5 year old child, indeed I was unaware of most hatred and bigotry.
Eventually, we moved to the United States when I was 7, and I went to Elementary School in Ohio. I remember kids teaching me to speak English, how excited they all were that I could speak another language like it was a super power. I didn’t like that my once beautiful name, “Maëlle” had been butchered down to an atrocious sounding “My”, but I thought that there was your original name, and then there was your English name, and my English name would be some variation of “My”. (It was. To this day, very few Anglo-saxxon friends can pronounce the beautiful connection between “Mah” and “Elle” without adding a “ye” diphtong in the middle to help them with the transition. I have been called Maya, Mae, Mayo, Meow, Mayellie, Maylaylay, and any other variation thereof, including once, quite comically, “Email”. My “American” name has been settled down to “Mayelle” which, while is fine, it is not My Name.)
Apart from that, however, I suffered no bigotry. Quite the contrary, all I knew was acceptance and celebration of any difference I had. My best friend at first was Indian, my neighbors Japanese, but apart from some People of Color, most were white. And so my transition to the United States as a teenager happened in a mostly white surrounding, where I didn’t once think about racism, see it, or feel it. Despite the language barrier, my whiteness had afforded me a blindness that would be called privilege by some, but that was also a major ignorance to the experience that many of my brown counterparts had grown up with. My mother had remarried by now to Jaimito, who is Dominican and Spanish, but is entirely white passing. My mom, despite her white skin and warrior size, could also be white passing, but I’ve always loved her long thick dark hair and tone of her skin that have always hinted at an amazonic ancestry. We had come here on a job offer for Jaimito, who had studied in Florida in his college years, and had already gotten his residency. We were legal aliens, never looked at or considered to be immigrants, so that was also not an experience I ever went through or witnessed others going through until much later.
Eventually we moved to Florida, where I went to a middle school in Coral Springs for a year before going to High School. Middle school in Florida was exactly as one would expect. My best friends were black, my boyfriend was half Mexican half Colombian, and white people were starting to feel different to me, despite me feeling like I was supposed to identify with them due to the color of my skin. It was an equally mixed crowd. I did not remember experiencing racism there, though I do remember there being another white girl who fluently spoke the same languages I did, along with one other one that I did not.
Obviously I hated her. She had taken the one thing that kept me from feeling special. She made me feel like just another white girl. In Middle School, being white was also a class thing. By then, through television, microagressions in my family and other latino families, I was already learning to internalize racism against my own people. Being latino meant you were brown and poor, so I obviously had to identify as white as I had no accent, and wasn’t brown. I felt otherly within myself. I was internalizing racism I would have never wanted to internalize had there been other exposure of black bodies, had I been taught different, had I grew up somewhere else. I lacked the context and the sense of questioning that which was around me.
Despite being white passing and considered “cool” during my elementary school in quite white Columbus, Ohio, there was still an “otherness” to me that I had not yet learned to identify with. Sure, it was cool to feel special, but no one else knew what it was like to grow up multicultural. There was my mother, who had many friends that like her, had moved to the United States for a better opportunity, and then her children, which were mostly younger than me, more my brother’s age, and not who I felt I related to either. In Ohio, people of color had become my family, and not the people that went to school with or people that taught me. I was proud to be Colombian, but was made to feel lucky that I was white. I didn’t like being white, because the skin felt foreign to me in matters of racism. But being brown was looked down upon, while being brown and latino was something that I had grown up seeing as normal, and beautiful. Identity…what a mess.
It was the beginning of how I identified myself in regards to my culture and in relation to others. After middle school, I attended a magnet program in a high school in Pompano Beach. There, the majority of the students were black, followed by latino, followed by asian and white and then “other”.
To me, it felt like home. I felt that I was “like” my black friends who spoke about Jamaica, or Haiti, who talked about foods that were closer to what I had grown up with than any white American. I liked relating to my Latino friends but was very often cast out for being too white, for having a French side, for speaking too “white” and not enough “gurl”. It took me a couple of years to pick up on it, since at first I felt the “white kids” were the “other” and that the rest of us were “Us.”
Sometime between freshman and junior year, I began to understand Racism as a concept that went beyond a word. The first “love of my life” boyfriend I had ever had, had been in High School. He was Jamaican, and black. I didn’t think about it for a minute. Racism was a word, not a concept I had ever had to really face or blatantly witness due to the color of skin I had grown up with, and where I had grown up. I had subconciously began to understand racism against brown latinos (or “Mexicans”), but black people were still somehow “my people”. However, it was the second year of high school, and I had fallen in love with a black boy who loved me back. Suddenly I was getting side-eyed, and girls I talked to every day in friendly classmate banter were now cold and distant.
Mind you, it was the black girls doing it. I never heard a peep from anyone else. I had entered a world that I didn’t understand. Back then, the movie Save The Last Dance came out and it only further confused me in regards to biracial love, racism in general, and where I belonged due to it touching up on a delicate topic and opening up a conversation that very much needed to happen while furthering racist stereotypes. I was obviously not black, but I wasn’t “latina” enough to always be considered latina, and I didn’t feel white, despite me getting lumped in that category so often. I wasn’t mad at black people, I felt pushed away by something greater than the both of us. I was missing something, and I could not, for the life of me, figure out how to figure out what I was missing.
I learned racism through microagressions directed at me. It was adopting the same vocabulary my friends had, and then being told that I was “too white” to talk like that. It was wanting to date a black guy but having to understand that it wasn’t going to happen, because there was a part of him that I didn’t nor would I ever understand, and that it was important to him that I do. It was in having to be careful what I said to my brown friends, and no longer being able to touch kinky or curly hair as an act of affection, because for them, it was an act of violence against their selves. It was feeling pity for my brown cousins and not knowing why. It was in making fun of my mom’s accent like she was somehow not the unbelievably intelligent woman I knew. (This eventually turned to admiration and adoration. I love my mami’s accent. It is a symbol of pride and cultural intelligence.) It was in having to unlearn all the cliché jokes I had learned in my white upbringing, thinking it was funny to make fun of myself and my heritage. It was in learning to hate the word “Mexican” because my language and culture was erased behind the white children’s ignorance of thinking that anything Spanish was just Mexican, and then having to unlearn that Mexico was just a big desert with cacti and lazy men napping under a big sombrero leaning against their burros.
I learned racism because it affected me as a multicultural, because it limited me, clumped with the ignorant and kept me apart from those I related to. Which is probably why I have always seen racism as a concept that hurts everyone, not an “us against them” mentality but rather a system of separation that has been installed and continuously updated in our psyche and society. I also went through the phase of saying that I was “colorblind” because I had grown up not caring about color in MY way of judging, but in saying that, I had also ignored other people’s experiences growing up black or brown. It is not my lack of acknowledging that racism exists that will abolish it, but rather admitting that it exists, and fighting from within.
It was being in France, and not being able to experience that rich American heritage I had grown up knowing that made me identify so strongly as Latina. It was being able to identify the racism within me, exploring those ideas, and releasing false beliefs about what it meant to be brown, black, female, latina. It was in relearning narratives by making sure I was listening to the stories of men and women that had grown up with me but with different contexts and colors of skin. It was in embracing my empathy and love for that which racism called The Other;
I am not a brown latina, so I am not a “woke brown girl”. I am not a black woman, so I can’t speak for the “black girl magic.” But I am a woman, and a human, and a multicultural one. And navigating those things have not been easy for me despite my whiteness, because racism hurts everyone. It was not the black girls or latina girls that side-eyed me that I blame, but the system that taught them to look at me like that. The system that taught the white girl to snap at me because I was “too white” to use a “black person” word. It was the system that told the black family that their son would not be able to date a white woman because of what I have been taught as well. It’s a sick system that is made to look harmless to those benefiting from it, as it seemed to me. That system kept brown girls from discovering their intelligence, and black girls from discovering their magic. Imagine what it might have kept from me, what it might have kept from you. It might have coaxed you into believing that Acadamia favors you and you are more valuable for your intelligence, somehow inherit to your skin color. It might have coaxed you into believing you are more hardworking, or less prone to crime. It might have lulled you into a false sense of value, so that you would look away from where your true value lies.
In not fighting for equality, in not embracing that there are differences, in not embracing that we are all hurt by these hateful, oppressive tactics that have been growing for years, we are not only allowing others to be hurt, but we are denying an entire aspect of ourselves that needs exploring. Because whether you like it or not, whether you want it to be true or not, your race defines you. Our society has made it so, civilization has been mounted upon systems of power and control and dividing the masses is the way to control them.
I believe that the system has also deeply hurt white people at an emotional level. While society has done everything so that black and brown bodies will hate themselves, there has been an undercurrent of “self love” that has emerged through Millenials in movements of queer love, positive body image, and brown people telling their stories. While on the other side, white people have been handed so many privileges while being part of an oppressive system, that what has emerged from the white world has been white guilt, and self-hate. I believe that many people who are flamboyantly racist, deep down inside, hate themselves and their race and have no idea how to change anything or do anything because when you have grown up privileged, it takes longer to learn how bad the problem really is, and many people may choose not to see it, due to it being too hard to admit.
I came face to face with all this realization, with what people my generation are calling being “woke“, in my mid 20’s because that’s when I began to actively practice Self-Love. And after decades of defining myself through my hair, clothes, attitude, etc, I was having to embrace how others had defined me through my skin color and how that had internalized. Throughout my adult years, in moving to France, then Mexico, then Los Angeles and then back to Mexico (and then back to France this is just getting ridiculous) the number of black people I met watered down to not very many at all. And I have felt the absence of the Jamaican and Haitan teenagers I went to high school with, and the experiences I might have been able to witness and not remain ignorant to had I continued to be in a setting of mixed ethnicites and not white privilege. In Mexico, of course, that has changed profusely, I connected deeply to the Mexican culture, not only appreciating it but loving it, truly. Feeling like deep down, I’m probably a bit Mexican anyway. Coming to terms with my colonizing ancestors has been a trip, and I am still on it. This also affects my self love. We are our ancestors, no matter how disconnected we are from them. Their memories and traumas are with us, their stories part of our lineage and why we look the way we look, grew up where we did, speak what we do, eat what we eat.
I have missed out on countless opportunities to learn from people of another race due to my own fear to look like an idiot and ignorance to know better. I have missed out because of their fear of me because of my skin. I have missed out because of the system of division in our neighborhoods, schools, social circles. I have adopted self-hatred because both my last names are essentially European and my white skin tells the story of a mostly colonizing background.
Whether we choose to embrace it or not, whether we want to ignore it, or pretend we are “colorblind”, or “not racist”, it takes only a little bit of listening to realize that Everyone has A Lot of work to do. Not for The Other, not for the person that doesn’t look like you or maybe does but doesn’t come from the same place. Rather, so that in exploring how we define ourselves, how others have defined us, we can lift any blocks we may have never known were there, keeping us from truly knowing ourselves. In knowing ourselves, that is how we can better know The Other. In accepting ourselves for all that we are, that is how we can truly better accept The Other.
By recognizing, that all along, The Other is also within us.
As a white person: Have you ever thought about your race? How has your race defined you? Have you ever felt racism? How has this affected how you have seen yourself?
As a POC: What behaviors of ignorance, bigotry, or racism, have you yourself shown and how has this affected how you have seen yourself?
Activity: Racist activity time. Make 5 circles. Label them “white”,”brown”, “black”, “asian”, and “indigenous”. While it is a racist way of looking at skin, this activity is meant to make you look at the racism you have within you.
Without filtering it out write out all the beliefs you have been taught and may have in your head (even those you know to be wrong but that you still think about) in the circle corresponding to people who have a certain ethnicity? Then, look at the circle you identify under. How has this defined you?
In your journal: Cultural self portrait time. In whichever way you would like to, think about how you’ve identified with yourself ethnically. What have your race and culture told you about yourself? Make a self portrait dedicated to showing love and appreciation for where you come from. If you have never really thought about it, maybe take this opportunity to devise a plan to further explore yourself.
A painting I began towards the end of 2016, illustrating how I felt being half Latina and Half French. Not very good news for the French side, but that’s evolving.