A Story of Race and Ethnicity
Posted on January 8, 2021
When I was in in middle school, I had an unrequited crush on a boy. We were at lunch one day, and I was thrilled to death to have his attention in a conversation. Then suddenly said boy, who was racially White, asked me, “So, Kristy, what are you? Are you half White?”
Middle school Kristina didn’t quite know how to answer this direct question. My brain did some quick simplistic logic. Well, my mom does have a fairly light complexion whereas my dad is quite solidly Brown…so I quickly came to the conclusion that yes- if we’re talking skin color- maybe half White was a correct label. My mom was White and my dad was Brown. So middle school Kristina must be both.
“Yes! I responded enthusiastically, eager to keep this convo going with the cute blue-eyed 13 year old. His face brightened a bit and he responded, “I thought so! What is your mom’s maiden name then?” “Quintero!” I stated proudly. I was glad to be able to make him feel good about his racial identifying skills.
But then his face looked confused and his response slowed… “But…that’s still a Mexican last name isn’t it?” Then my face was confused too and I answered, “Well, yes, she’s Mexican American too. But she looks White. Was that not what you meant?”
And that was that. My little middle school crush walked away confused and my little 13 year old heart was convinced I had lost the man I was meant to marry.
Unfortunately, my ethnicity/race confusion didn’t stop there. I realized then that when people asked me “what” I was, they didn’t mean skin color. They meant something else. So I stuck with the reality that I was indeed a Brown woman who tanned well and was not White after all. My mom’s maternal and paternal surnames were Ochoa and Quintero. My father’s were Hinojosa and Garza. I figured all those names were definitely Mexican: so there you go. Hispanic non-White it was for me.
That is until I went to college. My bronzed skin self from high school was no longer on a swim team in the sun every day and my pale skin took a front seat once again. With the surname Garza, I was never viewed as fully White, but maybe close enough. I was attending a college with a less than 5% Latinx population so I was pretty ethnically and culturally isolated during those years. I also happened to be all in with evangelicalism, which as we are all aware, is very White too.
My senior year of college, I started dating a clean cut White man who was a Resident Advisor and leader in his church college group. When we started dating, my ethnic identity didn’t come up much. Until I heard his friends from his dorm say, “Oh you’re dating that hot Mexican girl.” And so again I was reminded: nope you definitely are NOT a White girl. No matter how pale my face or how disconnected to my culture, whiteness was not me. It was like I was ALMOST White. White enough to not get followed around in a retail store, but not White enough to not be treated like an “other”. So that’s where I lived for a long time. A very, very long time.
Getting married to my college boyfriend meant my last name became Robinson. Other than my very “ethnic” wedding, I’m not sure the White world I occupied thought about it much. But I did always wonder why I felt so different. Why I always felt a bit on the outside. Why I’d get passed up for leadership, or why potential colleagues would say “you just aren’t quite what we’re looking for”. Why was I still so excluded?
Re-engaging and embracing my own ethnicity was a slow decades long story that I’ve shared about and written about plenty. The title of “Woman of Color” seemed to encompass everyone who wasn’t White so I figured that was as good as any way of defining myself. I appreciated the shift too to BIPOC because that was even more inclusive and specific. I wasn’t Indigenous. Nor Black. So there you go. Problematic erasure solved! I had found my home label.
Until I didn’t. In justice circles in particular, the language I was using was identified as problematic there too. Suddenly labels like “White-passing” or “White coded” were insufficient terminology and didn’t fit. Latinx activists were clear with me: to say I’m White-passing is to say I’m White. They mean the same thing. To say otherwise is erasing the experience of Brown and Black Latinx people. Terms like Mestizaje — which I had used in my previous writings and a published book were also problematic: it is a term that’s colonizing so it’s oppressive. Harmful.
I’m now 40. I’m still comfortable identifying as a Mexican American woman, as that feels like undeniable genetics and heritage. Grandparents Mexican. Parents Mexican. Think that means me too.
But that’s about all I’ve got. Language is fluid and dynamic. Ever changing and evolving. I’m okay with that. But it sure can get complex for a sometimes Brown, sometimes White (especially during a pandemic) and always non-Black person like myself who wants my language to reflect my ethics of inclusion and dignity for all. And we ALL know that is still a work we have to keep moving towards.
So in light of this, I’ve decided I am White. If by White you mean non-Black. I am also Brown. If by Brown you mean non-White.
And if I’m in Mexico. I am güerita. Cuz I am as pale as snow sometimes and have not nor will I ever be a Mexican citizen.
But if I find myself in small town Texas, I might be labeled that “Mexican” that was once “hot” in my teens, but now I’m 40 and tired of such definitions . Just call me a goddess like my husband does and that will suffice. For the moment.
I share all this because I want to remind people that this whole concept of race was always a social construct that didn’t carry water, but it is also something very real in our world. As someone who wants to use language that doesn’t harm, erase, or oppress others, I have spent 4 decades of my life following the trend of ever shifting racial categorizations. If there is a way to define my reality in just and whole terms that doesn’t dehumanize anyone including myself, that would be lovely. I am down for the cause. Until then, I invite you in to this winding journey with me. Yes, I carry many identities. Yes, I am a follower of Jesus. But I follow him in a body, in a cultural context, and in a world that is broken and beautiful and racists and diverse and oppressive and liberated. I will keep working at doing right by others and myself.
Signed, A Latinx cishet female who’s maybe considered White. Maybe Brown. Maybe PoC. Not Evangelical. Definitely Christian. That’s all I’ve got.