The conceptualization of my racial identity began with an experience with my cousins—though it was not really a moment of clarification, but one of confusion. We were sitting in Alyssa’s room and the room was buzzing with loud and boisterous conversation, so I was sitting silently, of course. There were a lot of people crammed into a tiny space, and I was significantly younger than the rest of the group (or at least it felt that way), which certainly contributed to my shyness. Throughout my life, I have learned to be a listener, which becomes the role I often play in my day-to-day life. I learn best when I listen, and I wish sometimes I was someone who could also speak, but I have not figured out exactly how to use my voice. At one point during the noisy stream of voices and laughter, one of my cousins loudly stated, “Get out of the room if you a white person”. I froze with uncertainty. I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant to be white. I knew that I was brown, that my appearance was different from many people with and around whom I grew up —my classmates—who have always been predominantly white students. My cousin could probably tell that I was confused, because she looked at me and said, “You stay”. I flash back to a time in second grade when a classmate asked me why my skin was so dirty. A flood of memories holding realizations supervene. The process of my racial identity formation began here.
I am historically dislocated. As a child of diaspora, I find my dwelling between the space of borders, in a country saturated with and permeated by notions of identity. My parents raised me in a place in the world which almost entirely detached me from the possibility of connecting with my being Dominican, which is something that I do not necessarily have a language for yet. My mother refrained from guiding me to explore my roots, leaving me with a clouded sense of pride about my racial identity. I am constantly and differentially implored to rearticulate for myself and for others my perceived, practiced, and embodied ethnic identity and its different meanings. For a long time, I felt shame about my cultural identity, because it resembled no one else’s around me. I resembled no one else around me. My desire to belong grew from here, and began as a desire for whiteness. This desire has rotted away and grown into a comfort and pride in my brown-ness, which has not been uncomplicated either. In a lot of ways, I feel alienated from a culture and people that I claim as my own and questions of authenticity about my racial identity resurface. “You’re not really Latina because you don’t speak Spanish,” I was told this summer. The appeal for authenticity is tangled up in these attachments, strengthening the impetus to identify with, claim, and defend the racial identities to which I have been assigned.
The intensity of ongoing negotiations about my racial identity varies depending on context, company, and comfort. I’m not sure that things are becoming clearer to me—which speaks to the complicated nature of the topic. A flood of memories holding realizations supervene.
A casual acquaintance who, after I mentioned to him that I am a first generation American and that my mother is from Dominican Republic and my father is from France, told me that I do look “pretty ethnic.” My best friend in kindergarten was the only other brown girl in the class and people would constantly tell us we looked like twins, though we did not look alike at all. Sometime last spring one of my close friends told me that he reads me as white. “We pretty much have the same skin tone,” he said. When I was a little girl, my brother’s best friend Sanjay explained to us that he was the “most bad” (of the three of us) because he had the darkest skin; I was the second “most bad,” and my brother was the best, because he has the lightest skin. My mother recounted this story to me on the phone the other night. A year ago a classmate of mine told me that he did not think that racism exists at Wesleyan and that he does not believe in microaggressions. In first grade one of my classmates asked me why my skin was dirty all over.
When I was a freshman at Wesleyan, a boy that I had just met told me that I was “pretty much white” upon learning my racial identity. A friend of mine graciously included me in his family’s Thanksgiving plans when I could not afford to fly home to be with my own family. His aunt asked me, “what combination of human are you?” Excuse me? I realized that she was asking about my ethnic makeup, or whatever. What’s so threatening about not knowing? A year ago, a friend of mine tried to add me to a Wesleyan-associated facebook group for black and brown identifying people to share black and brown music. The creator of the page messaged my friend saying that I could not be added to the group because I am not black or brown. My friend corrected her, asserting my Dominican identity. I have not been added to the page. I told my roommate that I was upset after that experience and have been grappling with my racial identity and he said that I should worry less about what other people think. I wanted to explain to him that it wasn’t the specific interaction that upset me, but it was my inability to place myself in the conversations I have been trying to have about race and synthesize the theory that I have read in class with my real experiences. I feel constant but implicit requests for authenticity and yet do not know how to provide that authenticity. I have not yet adequately bridged my academic understanding of race with my self-understanding—my orientation as someone who has been simultaneously and differently racialized, disadvantaged, and privileged. For most of my life I have been placed in environments that have foregrounded (at least for me) my difference. I used to look at myself in the mirror and say aloud to myself, “I am a brown girl.” I have always felt aware of my darker complexion, or made aware by a close friends’ grandma from Oklahoma telling me that I am “so tan.” So exotic. My friends’ mom decides to chime in to say that “[my] people are so beautiful.” I used to have curly hair as a young girl, just like my mom’s. I remember always pulling my curls down, wishing my hair was straight. I wanted so badly to embody the white beauty standards that I was so conditioned to praise. As I grew older, my hair grew straighter as if resulting from some miraculous force responding to my desire for sameness.
The Census Bureau designates “Hispanic” and “Latino” as ethnic categories rather than racial ones. I am trying to figure out or at least try to articulate (mostly for my own understanding) the specific ways in which I have been racialized within the Hispanic/Latino category and my inability to think of myself as white, but the ability of others to read me as such. My orientation is suggestive of the ways in which racial categories are constructed, disseminated, externalized, accepted, and ultimately internalized as markers of social difference. Groups of people become different by virtue of being treated that way. I have been treated as different, but I have also been treated as ‘the same,’ or as exotic, or non-threateningly ethnically ambiguous. I am brown, but I am light-skinned. My father is white. My father is French. My mother is Dominican. Taíno. She is brown like me. Latina? Afro-Latina? Hispanic? Her identity to me feels just as ambiguous as mine. Why am I and others so compelled to find a category for myself? “What are you?” I am constantly asked. What am I? And how can what I know about myself further my understanding of race as a construction?
Katya Deve '17