“What are you?”
It wasn’t the first time this question was directed at me, and I know it won’t be the last. I was with nine other American students studying abroad with a program reserved only for American students. So I was perplexed when I was the only one who received this question while the other students’ identities weren’t questioned. Even as we were reflecting on our American society a white peer claimed that Americans didn’t know much about our history. Interestingly, another’s response was to single me out and ask, “Well what about you? Aren’t you Mexican? Why don’t you know everything about Mexico’s history and culture?” as if I was the one making that comment and targeting it to him.
As a person of a bicultural background, both Mexican and American, I am proud of my cultures and happily share them. However, as soon as I tried to explain my background- that yes I am born in the U.S. to Mexican parents, but just because I’m born to parents of a different racial background didn’t mean I was born completely knowledgeable on Mexican culture- they completely dismissed me.
Why do we insist on perpetuating and reaffirming stereotypes? Stereotypes are implications of the economic, social and political structures of society. The notion of race was solidified by white America in the 19th century to justify acts of injustice towards what became minority groups (Race: The Power of an Illusion). As articulated by Chimananda Adichie, a Nigerian writer, “stories are defined by who tells them, how they are told, when they are told, how many are told stories are told. Power is the ability of not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person” (The Danger of a Single Story).
It’s our responsibility to educate others and ourselves about the changing American identity. From 2000 to 2010, more than half of the growth of the total population increase was due to the Hispanic population (US Census 2010). The fact is that culture and identity are constantly in flux, and that means we have to get used to the idea that being American doesn’t just mean being white.
As a person of color, these are a couple of tips I strongly encourage everyone should consider when interacting with people of color (Unmasking ‘Racial Micro Aggressions):
- Be mindful of how you phrase your questions/comments.
- Be aware of your preconceived notions regarding someone’s background. Check yourself by asking why you hold those beliefs.
- Educate yourself on what one’s acts may mean:
- Microassaults are “conscious and intentional actions or slurs, such as using racial epithets, displaying swastikas.”
- Microinsults are “verbal and nonverbal communications that subtly convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity.”
- Microinvalidations are “communications that subtly exclude, negate or nullify the thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person of color.”
By: Karen Romero