The Other

(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.

SeLoFest17 Challenge

The Prompt:
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.

15876937_687448021434965_2195416307657080832_n 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.

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Somewhere I’ve never been before

“At the end of the day, it isn’t where I came from. Maybe home is somewhere I’m going and never have been before.”
Warsan Shire

Morgan had been trying to get me to go to Minnesota for a while, but I never could because I didn’t have the money. In the meantime however, he kept talking about me moving there one day. Me? Live in a state I kept confusing for its city name? Me, live somewhere where winter is literally the Artic? Me, live in a state that I (so incorrectly) thought could not be more boring and unimportant, since “everyone knows” there’s nothing interesting in the middle area of the USA, except for maybe Chicago. God was I wrong. Either way, Minnesota was just so not me. I was meant to live somewhere exotic and foreign, somewhere where I could wake up and look around and say to myself, “Yep. This is where I should be living.” France satisfies that probably better than any other place in the world.

So when I first went to Minneapolis, I was 3479309% sure that I was not going there to live, thankyouverymuch, but just to visit. By day 3, however, I was saying “what if”, and by day 7, I was saying “when I live here”. But it terrified me. I felt a doubt. I’d get choked up. “Wait, Maëlle” the voice inside me would ask by grabbing a hold of my throat, “what about winter?”. Like in the all too well-known show Game of Thrones, winter in Minneapolis is not something you’re going to mess with. As anyone who doesn’t come from MN but knows someone from there knows, Minnesotans are kind of obnoxious about their pride in dealing with cold weather, snow, and winter in general. (On my Facebook, my MN friends have monopolized winter. If ever I make a statement about it being cold, someone will be bound to chirp up and talk about how no, it isn’t REALLY cold where you are, because you aren’t in MN.) but once you’re there, you understand. Winter is a part of life, even when it isn’t winter yet. They’re just equipped for it. So equipped, in fact, that they’ve even learned to enjoy it and take part in it. There’s activities to do in it, like sledding, ice skating, and snowshoeing, festivals and fairs still happen during winter, and if you need tips and tricks on how to survive the sunless days, you will immediately learn that there’s such a thing as a sun lamp, and they’re actually kind of amazing.

Still…just because people had learned how to fare the winter, didn’t necessarily mean that I would. Sunlight is so unbelievably important to me. I get cold very easily, and become practically inoperable when I get too cold. I have very real and good reasons to certainly NOT live there.

 

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Winter in the Twin Cities. Photo by Cory Zurowski

But then when I was recently asked, why I was living in France, it got me wondering about how anyone chooses where they live, ever. It made me think about why I was here to begin with, what I had wanted from this trip to France, and had I actually achieved it.

The reasons for deciding to live in France were fairly simple, and very few. Three, in fact.

First, I wanted to be close to my father so I could experience him more, spend more time with the man who I had essentially come from, and understand who he was, as well as giving him an idea of who I was, now as a full-grown adult, and not the kid he had last seen.

Secondly, I wanted to be in France because I was half French, and maybe I thought that being in a country that I half “belonged” to I would feel less foreign, or be less foreign. (I was completely wrong.)

And finally, because France is gorgeous, and the energy of the land feels like I live in a story book.

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How many people DREAM of living in a town like this? Well, I get to DO that. That ain’t nuthin’. 

And while the third reason is still very much in tact, the other two are no longer standing.

In fact, it was in coming here that I truly realized how foreign I will always be, but that if I ever felt at home anywhere, it was in the American continent. Like I previously mentioned, I am nothing if not Latinx American. I was hesitant in being American, rejected it even, as if by being placed under that identity my Colombian and French heritage would be drowned out, like being American is the ultimate goal. I do not want to be called American any more than I want to be called Mexican, because I am neither, and I want to fully represent mi bella Colombia and let people know that we’re here, and we’re good people. I love Mexico, and it’s partially my home, but I’m Colombian.

Being in France has only made me feel foreign and alone. People here are so very cold and distant, always ready to complain and criticize, not ever as quick to want to help or appraise. It is unfair of me to say that while having unbelievably amazing friends that have been helpful beyond anything, generous, and selfless. There is a little bit of everything and I will only ever seek out the best. As a people, however, walking out into the street on any given day, I was not met with the welcoming warmth and open friendliness I had gotten used to living in Mexico and the USA. Me being so dependent of that warmth, France’s people have been slowly depleting me.

As far as my father is concerned…I’ve spent time with him and have had experiences that I will keep with me always. I have learned so much and he has provided me with tremendous growth opportunities. Basically, I got what I came for, and it’s enough.

The third reason, France being gorgeous, is still very much there, even more so than before because I LOVE my country, and have gotten to see her so much more. France is stunning.

But it isn’t reason enough for me to live here. Be here, yes. Enjoy being here, yes. But not enough reason to stay.

The only reason that maybe sneaks in is the fact that now my baby sister (and by baby I mean 20-year old) is living here, and that leaving France would mean going years without seeing her. That…would be hard.

I have enough of an interest and an idea in projects I’d like to fulfill to keep me in France for a little longer. However, ultimately, I don’t know that I can thrive here. I think I always traveled looking for adventure, and trying to find and lose myself. I came to France thinking I’d find stability, but had no idea what stability looked like, or how to go about acquiring it, so going to a completely unfamiliar place, without really a plan, or an idea of how to make it…looking back, I feel like it makes sense that I am where I am right now. I guess what I’m trying to say is, and this is hard to type…I’m ready to leave France.

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Boom. I said it. It’s out there. 

I’m not saying I’m leaving tomorrow, because I can’t. I’m also, actually, not saying that I’m going to Minneapolis.

What I’m saying is, I was totally willing to deal with the winter in Minneapolis because my priorities changed. I felt community and purpose were my new priorities, because Minneapolis made me feel like I had community and purpose. It made me seriously consider going there and start brainstorming solutions for upcoming obstacles, because of how bad I wanted not the place, but the people, and how the place would make me feel about myself.

I don’t know if home is Minneapolis, but I do know that home is not on this side of the world, and I don’t think it ever was. This has just felt like one very long trip. I still have things I’d like to do here, and moving is extremely expensive, so honestly it’s not like I’ll be leaving any time too soon. I’m not sure what the next steps will look like, because you have just witnessed me fully admitting this to myself now for the first time, without a ‘but’ after.

Things could change. I could meet the right people that might make me want to stay a little longer. However essentially, my entire family is on the other side of the planet, with the exception of my sister being here, everyone that I really need to be close to and want to see and be there for isn’t here, or even close to here. So why am I?

I’m not sure what to do now. Essentially, if I knew how, I’d just try to raise the money to get the eff out of here. Maybe that’s what I have to figure out. Moving is already hard. Moving across an entire ocean is another story, moving across an entire ocean with a cat, is a saga. Granted, my cat is not just any cat.

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Pilo and I on our way to the beach. La Rochelle, summer of 2015.

 

Pilo is rightfully my son and has been on walks, in trains, to the beach, in a tent, on a scooter, hiking, and yes, on a 10 hour plane ride. While it exhausts him, he handles it like a champ and doesn’t get overly stressed. But it is still an expensive and complicated thing to do.

So I say this, but who knows, I may end up staying in France another couple of years. I’d like to not though, because at this point, I feel like it’ll be me barely making it by. As I found out the hard way, when you live somewhere, there has to be substance to your reasons. You cannot shallowly be somewhere just because it’s pretty. And even though initially it started off as something more than that, France and I have come to just that. I find my country beautiful, but its general personality unpleasant. I’d like for me to leave here while we can still remain on friendly terms. I’d like to start living a purposeful life where I am using my talents and qualities, and I can’t wait to be in a place where my sense of humor is fully understood and I don’t get social anxiety just from going to the supermarket. I want to live somewhere where I know how to make a difference and can. I also need to, for my own wellbeing and survival, be closer to family and friends. Dear America (no, not North America. The real America. The ENTIRE America…) I belong to you. You are my home.

It took me this long to realize it because I always thought home was a tiny place. But it isn’t. It’s a feeling. A community. A people.

And being away from home hurts. But finally understanding where it is, that is something that perphaps I may not have gotten had I not lived here in France first, and felt disoriented for a while.

Now, I’d like to orient myself. So I guess that’s what I’ll do.