*I will be referring to people in terms of skin color, not because I am ignorant but because I this is sadly the reality of how most of the world sees people*
I have lived in New York City, the melting pot of America, all my life. I was born in “the Big Apple,” while my parents, along with most of my aunts and uncles, migrated here, in the late 80s, from South America. Growing up I lived in a predominately Hispanic neighborhood in Brooklyn. Most of my childhood memories involve friends of my own race or Dominican and Puerto Rican ninos. I always felt like I belonged because much like my parents, their parents were immigrants too. Our families shared similar values, beliefs, traditions and customs. For instance, our mothers always prepared home cooked meals for us and fast food was a rarity. Choosing fast food over our mother’s food was even considered insulting to them.
When high school rolled around I parted ways with my dear friends and entered new and unfamiliar territory. About 90% of the students who attended my high school were white. My caramel skin, black hair and dark eyes stood out amongst the pale skins, light eyes, and blondes and brunettes.
High school was the first time I had actually seen anyone, in real life with so many different eye colors. I was fascinated, yet afraid, by these people who were so different from me. Instinctively all the ” others” the non-whites flocked together. I was apprehensive about interacting with the white girls at first, because all I could think of was, “they must all be like Regina George.” Eventually I found myself mixing with the crowd, and because kids were unsure of where I was from instead of simply asking they would once in awhile joke around asking, “Are you from a terrorist country?” or “Do you eat a lot of yucca and plantains?”
Of course, I always brushed off their comments and never took it seriously until one day in my religious studies class we started talking about immigration. I will never forget this day. It was a beautiful sunny morning as the sun shone down on our small class piercing through the huge glass windows. Our elderly hunchbacked teacher just finished taking attendance and began his lesson for the day. Now I don’t remember how we got to the topic of immigration, but what I do remember was out of the far right corner a pretty, dirty-blonde girl, average height, slim thin frame, and fake tanned skin shouted out, “I THINK ALL IMMIGRANTS SHOULD GO BACK TO THEIR COUNTRY ESPECIALLY IF THEY CAN’T SPEAK ENGLISH CORRECTLY, THEY’RE ALL STUPID AND HAVE TOO MANY KIDS!”
I couldn’t believe my ears, first and foremost because I knew for a fact that her parents were immigrants and that her father barely spoke English! All the white kids began chuckling and agreeing while the few minorities in the room were shut down everything they tried to defend themselves. Funny how one experience can change your entire perception. From that day forth, I knew I wanted nothing to do with the “whites.” I felt hurt and disrespected and assumed all whites were ignorant and arrogant. For the rest of high school I interacted with them on a minimal level and kept close to my own.
When it came time to choose a college, I knew there was no doubt I wanted to go to a very diverse school. Not the type of school where they find the one colored kid to put on the front cover of their pamphlet and call it “diverse” but a school that had a balanced mix of students. I decided on a small college about an hour away from home. The campus was absolutely beautiful and the students were very friendly. It was the perfect balance for me. Throughout college, my freshman, sophomore, and junior roommates were Hispanic. My freshman roommate looked Hispanic, but my sophomore and junior roommates looked white because they were pale skinned. This was shocking to me because growing up all my Hispanic friends were some assortment of tan.
My roommates would tell me stories of how whites were always nice to them because they thought they were white and Hispanics were always mean to them because they considered them fake or wannabe Hispanics. I was learning so much about people I thought I knew everything about. As I mentioned earlier, I tried to stay clear of the whites from that one experience in high school and continued with the same frame of mind into college. Surprisingly, in college, the whites approached me, and although I was uneasy, I gave it a chance. They turned out to be some of the nicest people, many of whom I remain close with to this day! Nothing like the girl in high school. Eventually I forgot about my bad experience in high school and became so open that I began dating a white boy, who is still my current boyfriend. This is how I learned the most valuable lesson about race.
When my boyfriend and I began dating I had a lot of misconceptions:
First, I was skeptical that his family would look down on me because I was colored. I couldn’t be more wrong. They were absolutely charming, warm and inviting! Just like my family.
Second, because most of my insight on white people stemmed from movies and TV shows, which I know isn’t accurate, I thought white people were all fairly wealthy and lived free and extravagant fancy lives. Wrong again, my boyfriend’s family were middle class working people. Some were wealthy, some were white collared, and some were blue collared. Just like my family.
Third, I assumed white people didn’t cook or clean, they just had maids. I was semi-right on this. While they didn’t have maids, they did order a lot of take out and had someone come in and clean their house once a month. Besides our skin color, this was the only little thing that actually made our families different!
It was amazing at how much more alike we were than different! Unfortunately not everyone saw it this way. Suddenly things changed.
People of color started saying things such as, “Why are you with a white boy, couldn’t you find a nice brown or black brother for yourself?” Or, “So you think you’re too good to be dating one of us?” They made me feel as though I had betrayed them.
I was confused for awhile and felt like I was stuck in a tug-of-war.
For the first time in my life, I felt like I couldn’t turn to my own people. After weeks and weeks of thinking, I finally came to the decision that difficult as it may be for people to see beyond color, my boyfriend and I saw beyond that and that meant that we had seen more than meets the eye. We were the change we wanted to see. As people got use to seeing us together they began to compliment us on how good we looked together! It was relieving, and oddly enough more and more interracial couples began popping up on campus. It was as though we had given them to courage to come out of their “interracial closet.” It was absolutely beautiful. I thought my days of dealing with race were a thing of the past until I was rudely awakened this morning.
On my way to work this morning, riding the train, I was sitting down next to an older Hispanic man on my left. I had my headphones in and my eyes closed. When I opened my eyes I saw a tall, slim dirty blonde woman standing with her husband by the pole in front of me. I saw a small protrusion through her dress and I wasn’t sure if she had some weight or if she was pregnant. Her arms were flaring and I could tell she was angry by the expression on her face. I turned down my music to hear what she was saying and I picked up the words disrespectful, pregnant, and rude. I assumed she was in an argument with her husband and continued listening to my music. About three stops later, the woman and her husband sat next to me on my right.
To recap the seating, starting from the left, the older Hispanic man, me, the white woman, her husband, and an old white couple. She was still going on about whatever had upset her, but this time she was also aggressively going through her purse and kept elbowing me. Since I knew she was already upset, I looked at her and when she sarcastically remarked, “Oh, I’m sorry,” I said, “It’s fine.” She looked at husband and began laughing.
A few stops later, the woman leaned over to her husband and vocally said, “can you switch seats with me I don’t want to sit down next to those!” and then looked over at me. I was in such shock, I didn’t know what to say and as my stop approached, the Hispanic man and I got up and she then said, “Hunny forget it, ‘those’ left.” I was so furious it took a lot of composure for me to hold my tongue.
I couldn’t believe how bold she had been, but then I began to think, what if she was upset because earlier that morning because someone of color had disrespected her and just like the one bad experience I had in high school, she had her one bad experience that day. Although I was angry at what she said, I was hurt because she was pregnant and she would give birth to a child, our future generation, who she would probably share her one bad experience with. She would warn him or her about “those people,” and he or she would grown up with misconceptions of “those people,” and the cycle would never be broken until someone opened their eyes and made them see how much more similar than different they were to “those people.”
With that, I dare you today to not look at people based on the color of their skin but based on people being simply people. We have the power to make and break perceptions, misconceptions, and barriers. If is up to you to decide what you do with that power.