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08.24.13

I'm A White Woman Of Color

Why the #Solidarityisforwhitewomen campaign misses out on the complexities of my experience. By Ana Cecilia Alvarez.

During a typical bout of feminist media carousing, I encountered an article that instantly triggered my gag reflex: "Lady Gaga’s New Low: Why “Burqa Swag” Needs to STOP." As if having the white women of Femen telling Arab women that they need to pound their naked breasts in public for so-called liberation isn't enough, now a white American pop star has used Arab women's "tool of oppression" as a five-second fashion statement in one of her concerts, and in a supposed new song. Like I said, gagging, everywhere. Not to mention that I was still reeling from Miley Cyrus's ridiculous appropriation of black culture (and my own weird guilt for having her song on an endless loop in my head.) I wrote a tweet out of frustration:

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Almost instantly I got two replies with the same hashtag that caused a global upheaval within the feminist community.

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For those of you who have not yet read the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen feed, I encourage you to click here to read an explanation from its creator. Below are some featured tweets.

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The #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen tsunami forced me to wonder which side of the hashtag I should come down on—as a white woman or a woman of color? For the reality is, both WHITE and WOC fail to define me.

For all "official" accounts and purposes, I am a first-generation Mexican immigrant. I was born in Mexico City to a father who is fully Mexican and a mother who is bi-racial (my grandfather was Mexican and my grandmother is Anglo-American). I immigrated to the United States at a young age and, thanks to my grandmother's American birth right, gained American citizenship shortly thereafter. So my claim to a Latina-based voice of color would appear to be legitimate. However, if I’m honest with myself, my racial identity is confused at best. Although my father is Mexican through-and-through, his family—my family—comes from land-owning ancestry of Spanish descent. And my grandmother, who grew up in Brooklyn, has blonde hair and blue eyes. As a result, even though I am a Mexican immigrant, I am inarguably white. This fact hit me like a ton of bricks even before I could verbalize how unsettling it was. After immigrating to Miami in my teens, I would participate in Thanksgiving food drives for the migrant communities of South Florida. There, the faces of the Mexican migrant mothers who received the bags of canned beans and dried pasta were unrecognizable from my own (pale, legal, educated, wealthy) face. In relation to them, I did not feel like, and never claimed to be, a woman of color.

This ambiguity was further heightened by the different communities I grew up in. For one, race is culturally understood—not necessarily experienced—differently in Mexico. I have talked about this internal identity conflict with my parents, who often are confused by my inability to reconcile my whiteness with my Mexican heritage. To them, questions of racial identity and ethnic features aren’t divisive. In Mexico, as they tell me there is no "race." There are levels of skin coloring, but this translates less as a racial division, as it is seen in the United States with "people of color" and "white people," and more into levels of "attractiveness" or "beauty" (with white meaning a higher level of attractiveness.) I remember comments from my grandfather that he "bettered the family" by marrying my grandmother, a white woman.

Once in the States, I went to a high school that was overwhelmingly homogenous. With the exception of a handful of kids, my whole school was white. And the majority of those white students had partial, if not full, Latino descent. Not only was race never talked about, but Latino heritage and white privilege were compounded, to the point where there was basically no distinction between being Latino and being white. In that environment, I was the entitled norm.

Still, if I revealed that I was, in fact, Mexican (and not Cuban or Puerto Rican, like most people assumed), a flood of racist jokes about burritos, sombreros, and lawnmowers would typically follow. To this I would roll my eyes and inform the jokers that not only was I documented (this seemed like the most important distinction to separate myself from those other “illegales”) but also proud of my Mexican heritage. I latched on to Frida Kahlo from an early age as a true Mexicana, prideful and deliberate in her presentation, with her indigenous fashions and ethnically-marked flair. Of course, I didn't consider then that Kahlo herself was bi-racial—her father was of German descent—and although her ubiquitous unibrow marked her looks as "exotic," she still got beauty marks for being fair-skinned, much like myself.

All this to say that in high school, even though I knew I was Mexican and immigrant, I also knew that I was white. If there was some ambiguity to others, there was barely any internal conflict. This all changed when I went to Brown University and was confronted with my (lack of) race. I received an initiation to participate in an orientation program for students of color at Brown’s Third World Center and was frankly confused. What could I possibly add to a conversation about race and oppression? How could I inhabit a space that seemed to belong to students who had truly experienced racial injustice? Even the idea of joining the Hispanic students group seemed strange—in Miami there was no "separate group" for Latinos. I rejected the TWC invitation, disavowing my Latino background not out of shame, like my family members did when they attempted to better the bloodline by marrying lighter, but out of a feeling of insincerity and usurpery.

If in high school I held onto my Mexican ethnicity while benefiting from my pale complexion, at Brown I found that my cultural past gave me more and more "color" than I was ready to assume. When I met other freshmen in my dorm, I would introduce myself as simple, nondescript Ana. But once the long-winded and accented Ana Cecilia Alvarez Ortiz emerged, so did a certain piqued interest in my racial otherness. At Brown, in my mostly white group of friends, my cultural flavor, my bilingual ability, and my immigrant status tanned my paleness with an air of exoticism and afforded me the particular "voice" of a (supposed) woman of color. And yet I was a non-threatening person of color: a visually palatable and pleasing face combined with a cultural awareness that added a certain sensitivity and authenticity to an otherwise homogenous crowd. I was allowed to talk about race as if I hadn't grown up white. I was allowed to separate myself from "those white chicks" and instead claim legitimacy when I donned stereotypically ethnic dresses and accessories. This shift became especially salient in my sexual relations. If in Mexico or Miami, my whiteness put me at the top tier of beauty, at Brown my fiery Latina side made me desirable because of my difference. Being aware that I somehow benefited from my cultural roots made me feel even more guilty and fraudulent when I encountered discussions about racism and oppression.

In her essay "A White Woman Of Color," Dominican writer Julia Alvarez describes a similar experience as a Latina immigrant. In the Dominican Republic, although race was coded in terms of beauty—her "white white" sister being the prettiest, while her older sister, with coarser hair, fell behind—skin color was more a marker of class or education than it was a separate identity. Once she came the States, Alvarez describes her confusion about having to check off WHITE or HISPANIC in forms (what is Hispanic mean anyway?) choosing OTHER instead. In her process of acculturation, she began to disavow many cultural aspects of hr Dominican background, at in that same process, felt she was becoming whiter, as if her loss of ethnic connection to her homeland changed the physical complexion of her skin. For Alvarez it was the words of women of color, like Maxine Hong Kingston, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morisson that reminded her she wasn't part of an "either/or" racial category and began to reconcile her inability to feel she was a "real" Dominican because of her skin color. She eloquently concludes:

"What I came to understand and accept and ultimately fight for in my writing was the reality that ethnicity and race are not fixed constructs or measurable quantities. […] My Latino-ness is not something someone can take away form me or leave me out of a definition. It is in my blood: it comes from that mixture of biology, culture, native language, and experience that makes me a different American from one whose family comes from Ireland, or Poland, or Italy. My Latino-ness is also a political choice. I am choosing to hold onto my ethnicity and native name even though I can ‘pass.’ I am choosing to color my American-ness with my Dominican-ness eve though it came in a light shade of skin color."

I still struggle with reconciling my ethnic past with my white privilege. I cannot discard my whiteness, yet I refuse to be marked as "less Mexican" because of my complexion. Yet I also don’t want to shy away from conversations about race out of my own fear of inadequacy. I have learned to adopt and address many definitions of race within me. Regarding skin color I am a “race” (white); regarding ethnicity I am a “race” (Mexicana); regarding cultural experience I am a “race” (immigrant). My racial makeup and identity is as contradictory as the many physical distinctions and cultural notions that make up the concept of race. It is both black and white.

Now, when I encounter debates in feminism that divide women along racial lines, the labeling of feminists as "of color" or "white" feels all the more misplaced. I am in no way suggesting that the issues brought up by women of color in #SolidartityIsForWhiteWomen are less legitimate, or that white women shouldn’t “sit down and listen.” Of course, conversations about feminism can no longer ignore questions of race—and class, and sexual orientation, and gender identity, and education, and ability. I do however hope that #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen evolves into a more nuanced conversation that takes into account the various spectrums of race and ethnicity within gender justice, instead of lumping feminists into "white" and "WoC" warring factions. My own background has shown me that privilege comes in many forms. My feminism has shown me that productive growth can come out ambiguity. I am a white woman of color. That can mean different things in different contexts. But what it does definitely claim is that I can have empathy with my WoC sisters and still take into account my own white privilege that provoked their grievances.