Growing up biracial in upstate NY was like living in two different worlds that ignored each other: a white world and an “other” world. The white world consisted of the Italians, Germans, Jews, Irish, and other European descendants. The “other” world housed…everyone else: Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, East Asians, African-Americans, Indians, Pakistanis, etc. We were all lumped into that suffocating group called “other.” That word always baffled me and it still ticks me off when I see it listed on governmental forms that ask me to tick off my “race.” What is other? What’s “other” to me may not be “other” to you, and vice versa. It just seems like it’s a word with no weight: it’s empty.
In my household, my brother and I had parents from two different worlds that loved each other: “German white man” and “Puerto Rican other woman.” My last name is very German and since my first name isn’t Maria or Carmen, most people assume I am completely white before they meet me. I imagine prospective employers glance at my name on my resume and think, “Oh she’s white. Let’s call her.” Maybe that’s my own insecurity, but maybe not. I wonder if the interviewer is disappointed to see that I’m not fully white. Or maybe they’re excited to see that I am a person of color, so I can help them appear to be “diverse.” It’s something to ponder.
Since I grew up in a suburban neighborhood, this means that I grew up with white kids. Most of my friends from my childhood were white and I saw nothing wrong with that. The concept of ethnicity, I hate the word “race”, never really impacted me. Yes, my parents are of two different skin colors, but what does that signify?
Unfortunately, when I was around fourteen, my notions of ethnicity shifted and I felt pressured to give in to cultural stereotypes. The other Latinas at my school, none of them my friends, silently pressured and persuaded me to drop my “white girl act”, and start speaking in Ebonics. If I were to wear earrings, they must be massive hoops. My jeans must be so tight that my stomach bulges over top and my t-shirts must be equally tight so my body looks like it’s in sausage casing. My preferred music choices, namely the Beatles and Edith Piaf, had to change. Now I was to listen to Daddy Yankee and Marc Anthony. Oh, and the fact that I’m not fluent in Spanish? Huge problem. I should learn Spanish because I’m not Puerto Rican enough without the language constantly flowing off my tongue.
All of these things I could pretend to enjoy for a short while, but one thing made me realize that I was indeed “other” and no amount of reggaeton or Apple Bottom jeans would change that: I had light skin. You see, prior to this point, I always assumed that my skin was a caramel shade of brown. It was compared to my white friends, but the other Latinas were darker than I. In my mind, to be a Latina, you had to be dark. One winter day, meaning one day when I was especially pale and yellow, my father drove me to school and I asked him to buy me a self-tanner.
“Why do you want a self-tanner? You’re already tan.”
“I know, Dad, but I’m not dark enough. I want to be darker because I feel like I look weird. My skin is so light but my other features are very Puerto Rican. I just want to look…normal.”
My dad was quiet for a long time but his silence said everything that he could not say to his vulnerable mixed child.
Finally, he said, “I’ll buy you that if you want it.”
What I realize now is that my hatred of my skin was actually a form of hatred of him. If not hatred, then rejection. By rejecting my light skin, I was rejecting my father and his German blood that rushes through my veins. I was telling him, “I’m ashamed to be related to you. My conception was a mistake. Now I’ve got to fix that mistake you’ve created.” Perhaps I’m being a bit melodramatic, but you get the gist. After much prayer and careful consideration, I changed my mind. I didn’t buy the self-tanner and I thank God that I didn’t. I still struggle with accepting my skin color. Some days, I wish I were darker. Others, I wish I were lighter. I know that it will take my entire life to understand who I am as a woman, a Puerto Rican, a German, and a Christian.
But, it’s a process that I aim to enjoy as best I can. Everyone has an opinion on my ethnic identity but mine is the only one that matters. As a person who is Ricandeutsch, yes I coined my own ethnic term, I have allowed myself to enjoy eating rice and beans while I watch Jane Austen films. I can sip on the sweet coconut syrup from a piragua, a Puerto Rican snowcone, while vehemently arguing why When Harry Met Sally is the greatest film ever made. I don’t adhere to anyone’s definition of Latina or “white.” I create my own definition and dance through my own world, knowing that I’m breaking the borders society built around me. I pray that while I walk in freedom, I can bring this liberation to so many other young girls and boys who are told they are not enough, simply because they were born in between.