I’ve often felt as though people hold their breath before I announce my ethnicity, as though it were some inscrutable mystery that they feel the need to solve. I usually pick up on the signs– the slight squint of the eyes, the tilt of the head, the premature opening of the mouth– before the question hits: “So what are you?” (or “What’s your heritage?” if they’re trying to be more polite about it). It’s a question that I’ve heard countless times throughout my life, and that has been repeated while at Amherst from when I first stepped foot on campus during last year’s DIVOH weekend to this past week at dinner.
My “racial ambiguity,” as it has been defined by a former colleague of mine, can be unsettling for a lot of people. My fair skin, peculiar nose, saucer-like eyes, and dark hair suggest different ethnicities, and none at all. People often attempt to label me right away: white, European, Russian, Italian, mixed. There are also the laughable “you can pass fors” which basically encompass everything under the sun. Sometimes I like to keep people guessing, just to watch them squirm at my features that are clearly undefined by phenotypic racial categories.
In reality, I’m white, but not quite. All of my official forms have read “Race: White”, “Ethnicity: Hispanic.” To an extent, this is representative of what I am. I’ve always been cafe con (a little too much) leche. I am a third-generation Mexican-Nicaraguan-American, whose first language was Spanish but now only speaks English. My apparent “Americanization” or “whiteness” is often what throws people from guessing I’m Hispanic first. Unfortunately, I can’t say that much else ties me down to my cultural heritage than knowledge of food, music, and a few phrases. As much as I want to, I cannot exclaim my ethnicity with enthusiasm without feeling as though I lack authenticity.
My Race and American Politics class, taught by Professor Ashley Burns, has provoked thought on what I consider to be my identity, and has helped me better understand what I am. What I’ve abstractly known but never actually felt is the racialized nature of American society. America’s history of intertwining racial categorization and citizenship has produced an incessant urge for us to define others’ race. However, as this so-called “melting pot” continues to stir different races, ethnicities, classes, and generations, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to define race. In many ways, I personify this issue. I, and many others like me, cannot fill out a census form without acknowledging the greater implications of my identity. It’s not certain if I am part of a new, undefined category of Americans, or if I am still white/Hispanic, but I am certain that I– like many others– will continue to grapple with ethnic identity until I can make some more sense of it.
Photo courtesy of JD Hancock.