being ethnic: part II

Read part I here

In middle school, there was this expensive Japanese procedure that promised to straighten your hair–permanently. It was trending among some of the girls in my class, and I remember when the girl who sat next to me in Social Studies had it done. Her hair flipped over her shoulder, glossy and gleaming and smooth in a streamlined shape. I started to fantasize about my hair looking the same way, liberated from the frustrated tangle of curls that got too frizzy in the humidity and were just overall too big and wild. My hair didn’t cling to my face gently like the hair of my white friends or drape in loose, soft curls down my back.

Nope. My rebellious strands were determined to explode out of my scalp, reaching out to the air at all angles. Since apparently my hair wouldn’t cooperate with my noble efforts to blend in better with my classmates (thanks again Hair), I tried other ways of standing out…less. I wore muted pastels when it wasn’t spring. I smeared that awful Limited Too roll-on glitter gel onto my cheeks (popular then but ultimately a bad life decision). I stayed quiet in class, eyes on the paper in front of me.

Despite these efforts, I remained-to my dismay-blatantly different. I was curvier, curlier, and considerably browner, and not in a lotion-tan-from-summer way. People already commented on how exotic my sister and I looked–so I finally decided by the end of high school that’s what I would be. I would be mezclada (mixed) and wear it as a badge. There was no point in fighting it anymore.

Hands positioned on my hips, I twisted my tongue to sound “ghetto,” brash and sassy and defiant in ways I couldn’t dare be otherwise. I dropped references to “my culture” into conversation, helped by my leadership roles in our Latino heritage club and attendance at other “ethnic” soirees. By my first year in college, I was blaring merengue in my room and wrapping my body in bright colors and patterns, coordinating and clashing and stepping out of my dorm determined to be noticed.

I zipped myself into the costume of the Other, slipped into it any moment I felt out of place. At least if I exaggerated my difference from my peers, it was my choice rather than being made an anomaly and feeling hyper-conscious of my race when I was the only person of color in the room (which was often in a white-majority college). There was a certain headiness, a power in walking through campus with tribal prints on my back and wooden earrings large enough to scrape my shoulders. I wore diversity on my arms, all flavor and spice and inescapable brightness–and I would never be called white inside.

It was a performance. Not all of it, because part of me genuinely experimented with my blackness, figuring out what could feel natural to me. But somehow I had gone from an exercise in self-exploration to making my ethnicity, my race an idol. I craved the comments, the praise my perceived exoticism won me because for once I controlled the narrative of how I was seen. I was no longer the awkward mixed girl from the suburbs whose blackness and Latina-ness felt inadequate and inauthentic. Using my clothes, my hair, my voice, and my embrace of my communities’ historical suffering, I staked my place as a Cool Minority. I belonged.

Once, I wanted to de-ethnicize myself. Now I was in danger of making my ethnicity the only thing of value I had. My frustration took fire because I was tired, so tired, of seeing  whiteness as the norm on TV, in school, and so I centered myself on the defiant resilience of people who looked like me and the cultures born and shaped out of our marginalization. Ironically, in challenging the sway of racism over me, I found my vision dominated and shrunken by the effort of resisting it because I still tethered my worth to my racial identity.

Black is beautiful and latinidad is pride, but they are not God.

I can’t point to the moment where I realized this, when I saw how far my pendulum had swung to the extreme. My gaze cleared, clarified, and I saw my efforts for what they were: a defense mechanism. I had hid my hurt deep under the celebration of my cultures and the defense of them against injustice. I hid it deep enough to believe that I was taking ownership of my racial identities when in reality…I just felt lacking. I had never been dissoluble in white spaces, but I didn’t feel fully integrated when with people of color either.

There is a keen sense of tragedy in living as a slave to insecurity when you are a daughter, received and loved exactly as you are. I needed to be reminded that I wasn’t just born with brown skin and curly hair and with a family whose heritage spans continents–I was designed with all of this.

God intentionally made me brown and black and called it beauty because he is the originator and source of Beauty. He made me knowing how the world I was born into would constantly cast my value into doubt. He has crafted my story even through the lies I’ve believed and the ways I’ve tried to grasp my own power and maintain it. I still forget so often that I serve the one Most Powerful, one who has already given me access to power and hope and a future free from pleasing others because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

My world needs to be less Afro-centric and more Savior-centric because I’ve been saved by Christ to recognize the inherent value in the cultures that have shaped me and the dignity of not only my ethnic communities, but also my Euro-American sisters and brothers. When that is my anchor, I am actually truly free to take ownership of my story still unfolding.

So what does it mean to be ethnic? From the still-distorted lens of my racialized country, it means you’re not white, you’re not one thing, you’re not categorizable. You are framed as desirable for having “culture,” but you will always be foreign. Your story will be forced into archetypes and tropes to make your identity accessible to white people.

But I’m not black, Latina, mixed in the ways I thought I had to be. I didn’t grow up with rap or hip-hop; I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish; I didn’t grow up tortured over a splintered racial identity.

I did grow up in a grassy suburb where my best friends were white and I loved them. I did have lunches of Costco freebies and went to pottery painting birthday parties and wore flared jeans and my mother’s colored blazers. I did dance to 80s pop music by myself in the kitchen and warbled Motown duets with my father. I did go to Civil Rights museums and Disney World. I did let my hair grow even when I didn’t know how to take care of it. I did visit my Abuela in the Bronx and go on picnics with Cubano sandwiches and batida de mango. I did watch Sister, Sister and Star Wars, and High Noon because my parents wanted us to get the references dropped in newspaper articles and fancy parties. I did learn to dance bachata and went home to eat curry chicken and rice and peas.

My story is not “ethnic.” It’s normal–complicated and imperfect, but normal. It always has been.

(so is yours)