The nurse in Louisiana refused to record my birth as a white one. “We are a one-drop nation,” she said.
My father is German and Irish. My mother’s mother is Canadian, of Welsh origin, and her father was from Mexico.
I was born with brown hair, eyes, and skin. My half-brother, Seth, whose father is also white, was born with blonde hair and blue eyes. The nurses in Nevada insisted on recording him as white.
I am a second-generation United States citizen, but I grew up calling myself Mexican. My grandfather did not teach his children to speak Spanish, though they picked some up on their own. He exclusively spoke a Mayan dialect until his teens.
He told his children to go be Americans, by which he meant assimilated U.S. citizens.
My grandmother told her children to call themselves Indian, meaning Native American, instead of Mexican.
My mother railed against this narrative for years, feeling that my grandmother was ashamed of her children and was denying some essential truth of their existence. My mother felt that Native Americans were revered in American culture. She did not feel it would be honest to claim any part of that goodwill. It is not often extended to the descendants of the indigenous peoples who survived in greater numbers and learned Spanish instead of English.
I was four when we moved to western Kansas. As a brown transplant with no biological roots in the state, I always felt like an outsider there.
Our entire town fit in a square mile. Ninety-seven percent of the 1,200 people that lived there were white. There was one Black man, one Filipino woman, one other Hispanic family, and us.
On the rare occasion that I met someone I didn’t know, there was always one question I could expect to hear.
“What are you?”
There was no way around this question. We discussed it at the dinner table, joking about ways to dodge it.
Mom would pull open the collar of her shirt, look down at her chest, and say, “Female.”
“Human,” was a response I tried more than once, without much luck.
People were annoyed when I forced them to elaborate just what exactly they were asking me to explain, but they never shied away from grilling me on my heritage. They seemed to feel entitled to an explanation.
“Mexican” was a word they knew well, though they misused it regularly. White people in Kansas called anyone of Latinx descent Mexican, even though there are 33 different countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Friends and acquaintances would often make disparaging comments about “the Mexicans” right in front of us.
“But not you, I don’t mean you,” my mother’s friends would say after trash-talking other brown people, but only if she showed obvious offense.
My schoolmates were not so tactful. A quarter of my heritage was seen as a major defining characteristic to the kids I grew up with.
“You can’t play with us, MEX-I-CAN,” one girl sneered, disgust dripping from every syllable.
She said this with an air of unquestioned superiority. I saw the look of satisfaction on her face as I wilted. She hurt me and that was the point. She enjoyed it. No one else on the playground said a word.
I don’t remember telling the teachers. I don’t remember the rest of the school day. I only remember crying in front of my mother.
“Tonnie,” she said, “we are Mexican. Why does that upset you so much?”
She did not know how to console me and I did not know how to explain why I so desperately needed consoling. My mother did not see why that sentence was so hurtful, how it was spit with such vitriol and disdain. I didn’t have these words in my vocabulary at the time. I did not yet know how to say the word “degrading.” How could I explain to my mother that I was learning a part of me was bad?
It was a part that could not be removed or changed, one I had been proud of. It made me different from everyone I knew at school. It lived in her perpetual tan and gorgeous Mesoamerican bone structure. It hadn’t occurred to me until that moment, as I stood in front of her, that this was an insult aimed as much at my mother as at me.
When I was a teenager, we moved to a larger city in Kentucky. Bowling Green is a college town, and only 75 percent of the population is white. The vast majority of the minority population, 14 percent, is Black. Six percent of the population identifies as Hispanic.
For the first time in my life, I was going to school with people I considered to be real Latinos. They spoke Spanish, and some had memories of a life before this country. I felt out of place among them.
One boy from Mexico would walk me home from the bus stop. He would have been more comfortable speaking Spanish, but I was not so brave. I insisted that we use English. I was embarrassed by the holes in my Spanish and my accent.
I discovered rather quickly that I had a newfound ability to pass. Black girls regularly called me white; white girls sometimes considered me one of them. Maybe the color of my skin had ceased to matter because I was no longer the most obvious minority in the room. Only a handful of people, usually others of mixed race or ethnicity themselves, asked me, “What are you?”
This does not mean that everyone’s race was irrelevant in Bowling Green. Race was still a frequent topic of conversation. There was bigotry and prejudice in my school, and friend groups were often segregated by race.
My ambiguous ethnicity, which had always made me stand out before, now became a type of camouflage. For the rest of high school, I began to actively avoid the sun in order to stay paler year-round. It was not that I wanted to be white; I had actually learned a sort of distaste for white people at home. “White” was simply the easiest category for me to conform to.
Three years after we moved to Kentucky, the summer before my senior year, we moved again. This time it was only a 25-minute drive from where we had been in Bowling Green, to the next county over.
I was upset, as I had not been when we left Kansas. I wanted to graduate with my friends.
My mother still worked in Bowling Green and agreed to let me ride into town with her every day, so that I would not have to switch schools.
My brothers were not so lucky. The populations of their new schools were nearly all white. They lost the privilege of invisibility they had enjoyed in Bowling Green. Seth, in particular, was incessantly harassed. His classmates took to regularly calling him the N-word.
He had grown to have Mom’s muscular build and dark skin, his father’s height and perfect teeth, and his great-grandmother’s full-bodied, thick, curly hair, which had darkened significantly over the years. When his classmates asked what he was, Seth had told them that he was mixed. That word meant Black and white to them.
“Did you tell them that we’re not Black?” I asked him.
“Why should I?” He said. “It’s not a bad thing to be Black. But the fact that they’re using that word like that tells me a lot about them.”
My brother didn’t want the acceptance of those kids—to be inside of the circle they were drawing. Correcting them would have been entirely beside the point. I wish I had been as wise at his age. Allowing myself to pass in Bowling Green, or trying to, had not just been an act that denied my heritage. Trying to pass as white was a way of passively lending my energy and support to racist ideals, even though I professed to actively loathe them.
In 1984, James Baldwin wrote a piece entitled, “On Being White… And Other Lies,” for Essence magazine. It is about the creation of the white identity in the United States as a means of justifying Black subjugation. His work would influence Theodore Allen’s The Invention of the White Race a decade later. Allen takes as his prime example Irish-Americans who, within a short span of time, went from a persecuted and subjugated class under English rule to participants in and beneficiaries of white supremacy over both Native and African Americans in the United States.
“No one was white before he/she came to America,” Baldwin wrote. “It took generations, and a vast amount of coercion before this became a white country.”
Attempting to fit myself into the category of white meant cashing in on the privilege that came with my light skin. It was a way, as Baldwin pointed out, of not allowing myself to be “tormented by the suspicion that all men are brothers.”