I grew up trying to know what to call strangers that looked differently from me. Women hated to be called woman, lady, ma’am, female, girl, and preferred be called Miss. Older men became sir. Asians didn’t like to be called Orientals or to be mistaken for another Asian group such as Chinese or Japanese. Americans with dark skin were to be called African American until my friend told me he preferred to be called black. He didn’t like the term African American because he had never been to Africa nor intended to go. He was American, but if someone wanted to be specific they could call him black, but not Black with a capital “B.”
Okay, I thought I understood, until blacks my senior wanted to be called American. Not African American, not black American, simply American. They said putting “African” in front of American made it sound inferior to simply American: The Great American Novel, The Great American Hero, or The Great Black American Novel, and The Great Black American Hero. That extra adjective in front of America implies a level of separation between America and black people, almost as if they weren’t part of this country even though they did more than any racial group to build it.
I got it until I ran into a Jamaican that didn’t want to be called African American, black, or American. He was from Jamaica, associated all his culture from Jamaica, and wanted to be called a Jamaican. No problem. While in New Orleans I met a man who was biracial, a Voodoo priest (that’s what he called himself) who was Haitian, and so many more people that I thought this whole idea of calling someone based on how they look was ridiculous, but inescapable unless we all became American with room for add-ons.
Now I have white skin and people normally call me either white or American, depending on the company. However, my mom and older brother were born in Barcelona, Spain and since I was alive we always had two languages spoken in our house, Castellano and English. I knew my mom was different than my friends’ moms because my mom had a different accent, cook weird food, and didn’t speak to us in English. Sometimes people would ask me if I was Mexican, other times I was asked what I was.
“Hrm, I’m half Spanish and half American,” I said.
That confused them, and I was also confused because did that mean I was less of an American because of my Spanish side? Well, my mom moved my brothers and me to Spain when I was nine and there I discovered that she was speaking Catalan to her Catalan friends. Now my Spanish mother became a Catalan mother who was actually half Catalan and half Castellano. I started learning Catalan along with Castellano in school and eventually I forgot how to speak English. My younger brothers couldn’t speak English and couldn’t understand it either. To my Catalan friends, I was never Catalan, but American, which was weird because to my American friends I was never American, but Spanish American. It felt like I was nothing because I wasn’t accepted anywhere. Blacks called me white, Hispanics called me Spanish, whites called me American, if they were my friends then Spanish American, and everyone else told me to speak English.
You see, when I’m called white, it’s like I’m being told I only have one culture, the American culture. If I have never lived in Spain, and if my mom only made American food I would agree with them, but that wasn’t the case. I grew up making tortillas (not the Latin American kind) and arroz cubano. I had to relearn English, I was put into ESL classes until the seventh grade, and people have told me to go back to my country wherever that was. Yes, I have a white last name, a white face, and all that gives me access to white privilege, but that doesn’t make me just white. I have two cultures outside my American one, and I want my label to reflect that. When people try to jam me inside a box that I refused to check then it only cuts communication and ruins otherwise healthy relationships. I’m a white Hispanic with his roots from Spain and England, and I’m a product of globalization. Me saying that I’m not just white doesn’t mean I support white privilege or that I deny its existence. It means that you can’t judge me based on how I look because my background is more complex than that. You should always call people by how they want to be called and not call them by what you think they deserve to be called. If you do the former, you’ll gain an ally, but if you do the latter then you’ll lose a friend or maybe even a lover.
Laugh at my face when I show you my tears and you’re lost to me forever.