My first language was Portuguese, but for over a decade of my life, I couldn’t speak it. Now, it sits on my tongue like a stranger: functional, but learned second-hand. Despite having a passport, I’m a gringo in Brazil, and I should be. For the four years I lived there, that’s what I called myself. My mom grew up just outside of Los Angeles and my dad in a small town called Campos in the state of Rio. I grew up in San Diego, hours away from my mom’s hometown, but a continent away from my dad’s. My experienced heritage is vastly different than my genetic heritage. Not only is my skin white, but my culture is too. I grew up in whiteness. It’s something I never questioned until recently. The story of how they met is filled with so many coincidences it’s a wonder I even exist at all, but here I am, very happy that circumstance has led to my creation. But thinking about their stories, and how they led to the start of my own, always makes me think about how easily things could have gone differently. Not only the possibility of me not existing, but of a different one existing. One that grew up in Rio de Janeiro, where my parents met. What would that me look like? How would he see himself? Would it even be me?
We all have stories that are more than the various components of ourselves. Some of them are stories that are locked in the various “what if’s,” only to be imagined but never to be told. Our physical appearance and personalities only represent a fraction of that, and yet that is what we are defined by in the eyes of the rest of the world. And that limited definition often rebounds itself to restrict how we define ourselves.
Recently, I’ve come to the discovery (or perhaps re-realization?) that there’s an entirely different identity that I could have had that I simply don’t. I have as much Brazilian blood running through my veins as I do American. But whenever an application asks for my race, my cursor lingers with hesitation over the box marked “Hispanic/Latino.” The truth is, I have no right to check that box. I live in whiteness, I live easier because of its privilege, and it’s unfair of me to try and reap the rewards of affirmative action by portraying myself as Latino when it benefits me, and ignoring it when I don’t. That’s why for most of my life I’ve said, “Yeah, I’m technically Brazilian, but I’m really not.” It was a way of trying to acknowledge my privilege and not attempt to be something I’m really not. I think that’s really important, I can’t forget the privilege my skin gives me and pretend to understand experiences I’ve never had. Regardless of the nuances of my own family history, or the way in which I identify myself, I will always be defined in the view of society in a way that benefits me. To only take the aspects of being Brazilian that are of benefit to me as a white person would be almost imperialistic. So perhaps this entire article is an unjustified exercise, and only another manifestation of my white privilege, a likely possibility.
But I think this continued mantra, of claiming to technically be Brazilian, but to simultaneously undermine and disregard that, is an erasure of my Brazilian heritage, even if I haven’t had much contact with it. Isn’t that considered one of the primary negative effects of colonialism? I’m literally whitewashing myself. Or I have been whitewashed already. I’m not allowing myself to define who I am. I’m letting whiteness define my ethnicity. I’m letting whiteness take away my complexity, all the other identities I could have had. Whether that’s something I did, or my parents did by moving to the US, or by having us all stop speaking Portuguese when I started going to preschool, it all comes from the same place: because of white supremacy, it’s easier for me to live as white. At some point, someone decided, whether that be me, my parents, or a combination thereof, consciously or subconsciously, that I was to be white. I didn’t have to be. There’s an entirely separate part of myself, a me that could have been, that I don’t understand and at least right now feel as if I never will, because being white was easier. It is easier. My life is easier not only because of my skin color but because of my lack of an accent and understanding of American cultural icons and symbols.
Of course, there are plenty of white Brazilians. But the white I’ve adopted is the liberal American brand, the kind that checks its privilege in at every door and declares it to everyone in the room. The kind that speaks of how grammar is oppressive without any accent and writes with particular attention to punctuation and always using Times New Roman font. I see my whiteness as distinct from being Brazilian, as if the two are at odds with each other, when inherently they aren’t. Maybe that’s part of the problem. I think of these two halves as separate. Perhaps that is simply because while growing up, I was so distant from Brazil I couldn’t help but think of it as something separate from me. Or perhaps it’s because the whiteness in which I grew up subconsciously taught me that I should disassociate myself from any non-whiteness.
But even as I think about my childhood and growing up, I can only access what is in my memory. There’s the even younger Frank that I don’t know. The one whose first language is Portuguese. The one that my mom’s American family friends couldn’t even talk to. But I have no recollection of that Frank. What does that mean? How does our pre-memory childhood affect our identities? That’s such a strange thing to consider, that we existed in ways we cannot recollect. How are we supposed to create a narrative for our own lives if we can’t even remember the first chapters?
If this sounds like a white guy complaining about problems that really aren’t that large, you’re completely right. I have it so much better than I would if I didn’t actually look white. For people stuck in this same cultural duality, but that can’t fit into the white American world because of their skin color, this conflict must be immeasurably more difficult. Even those who could be defined as “white passing” are still in a far more complicated situation than simply being white, like me. But just because I benefit from whiteness doesn’t mean it can’t take away, too. White supremacy has made my life easier, but it has also stripped me of a more complicated self-image I could have had, one in which I defined myself based on my experiences, not a mold that I was presented.
It is essential to recognize the way in which we are perceived, as that is where the various historical narratives and baggage we all carry come from. It cannot be ignored that looking a certain way at a certain time or place can be deadly. But I don’t think that should stop us from defining ourselves in whatever way we wish. If we let whatever our skin tells us be the default, then we are letting white supremacy win. We must recognize the assumptions that will be made because of our skin, and how we will be treated differently because of that, but that does not mean that is who each of us are. I should never forget that I am Brazilian, or at the very least I could have been. That does not mean I should saunter into a discussion on race and pretend I have any inkling of an idea of what it’s like to experience racism, but it does mean I should stop ignoring a part of who I am simply because the other parts benefit me more. We all should be allowed to view ourselves with whatever amount of complexity as we wish. We cannot let our passports deny us that, we cannot let any census deny us that, and we cannot let our own skin deny us that.
(Image is courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)