“I believe you need to figure out where that negativity came from. What is the root of it? That’s where you start,” she said.
“I’m not sure I’ve thought of it that way before. I always think of the ‘why’ but not from that angle.” I said.
“Exactly my point,” was her response.
I took that piece of advice and let it flow through me while I sat at my desk. I could practically feel my brain tittering away as it has been all week in my quest to finish this post. Oh man, this post has been killing me. Each passing day feels like added weight to the burden of getting these thoughts out in a way that makes sense. My head hurts. My insides feel like they’ve been steamrolled. Why is this one so damn hard?
Even now, I’ve stopped and started about three times. Literally. I have three paragraphs all going in different directions that I wrote in the last 15 minutes. Clearly, I need to hit the pause button and listen to what my friend told me so that I can get this one out. So here it goes.
I grew up with four siblings in an apartment in the Lower East Side, born to parents who immigrated to New York from the Dominican Republic. Like many first-generation Americans from immigrant parents, I dealt with identity issues. As the second youngest child in my family, I was brought up on the cusp of the strict “old-school” ways that my parents employed with my older siblings, and the more laid-back American style they’d adopted after living here for over twenty years. There were more freedoms that I got to enjoy (much to the displeasure of my older brothers and sister), but I had my feet firmly planted in two different worlds; a household richly-steeped in Dominican culture with its language, food, and customs and the giant spectacle that is urban life in the big city surrounded by millions of people demanding their own little piece of that American dream. Maneuvering between these two realities on a day to day basis required tremendous skill and patience. I had little of both as a teenager and that brings me here.
My early teenage years were awkward. Tell me, who didn’t go through an awkward transition into early adulthood? But I had the whole deal: braces, glasses, super chubby, total bookworm, and completely uncoordinated. I was a great student and loved going to school. I read for fun and I loved to draw. I was a giant nerd. My sister likes to say I was introverted (which is a nice way of saying I was shy to the point of awkwardness and no one knew how to deal with it), but I just marched to the beat of my own drum. No one really got that beat though.
Why are you acting white? they’d ask.
I didn’t have an answer.
Instead what I had was rage. Fury. As a kid, I just shrugged my shoulders and kept it moving. I mean, what could I say? This is how I speak. That’s the music I listen to. I prefer to sit here and read and draw, so sue me. Then I got older and anger trumped indifference. Each time someone posed that question or some variation, I took it as a personal attack. To them, it was all a joke. Oh because, “ha ha she talks like a white girl,” is obviously hilarious and I should be laughing along too. What it felt like was a slap in the face.
I’d ask myself question after question to try and figure out why this kept happening. Is it because of the way I speak? My cadence or diction perhaps? Is it because I’d rather listen to other genres of music than Latino? Is it because of the way I dress or the way I wear my hair? Is it because I preferred to read and draw in my spare time then to do whatever it is Latinos ‘should’ be doing? Is it because I speak English first and Spanish only when necessary? Is it the way I carry myself? Is it because my friends weren’t all Latinos and I chose to ignore the Latino clubs in school? Is it because I don’t look like a Dominican? Sound like a Dominican? Laugh like a Dominican? Am I really a Dominican or am I so ashamed, that I’d rather be “white” instead?
Questioning myself became the norm. Either I was defending my Latino “cred” by having to tell people exactly where I’m originally from in the Dominican Republic so that they could believe me (yes, I’ve actually had to do this) or I was questioning some other part of who I was. Am I smart enough? Am I pretty enough? Am I skinny enough? Am I Dominican enough?
Am I enough?
And that’s it. That right there, is it.
I wanted to sit here and shout the rafters down about racism and stereotyping and not letting any asshole continue to pigeon-hole me because I don’t meet some insane standard of what it means to be Latino. I wanted to sit here and say that I finally understood what it meant to be Latino for myself, when really I have no idea. I wanted to tell a story about my sister and all the crazy happenings of growing up in a Dominican family, button it up with a nice message about heritage and culture, and call it a day. I wanted and want to say all of those things and more but I couldn’t get there until I stopped here.
This anger, which I thought was long buried, is still there deep inside somewhere. I developed the patience to navigate both of my worlds by learning to just ignore the narrow-mindedness. To raise a deaf ear to those that continue to accuse me of “acting white” and to just continue beating my drum. Slowly I let it go but time doesn’t heal all wounds all at once.
My friend told me that I needed to find the source of my negativity and start from there. Funny to think that I met this friend years after I’d buried this “acting white” hatchet. She didn’t know me when I was at the heart of this battle. I don’t know if it was this particular experience that sparked a lifetime of insecurities, but I do know that it played an important role, for better or for worse, in the formation of my identity. I can’t think back on that time in my life without thinking of this. And it all goes back to this idea that I’m constantly beating back in my head. No matter what I do or how much I accomplish, it is never good enough. I can draw this out of every major life event I can think back on. That guy that broke up with me? I wasn’t good enough. That dress I can’t fit into? I wasn’t thin enough. That job I want but can’t seem to land? I wasn’t driven enough. That person asking me if I was sure I was Dominican? I wasn’t Latino enough.
There is no tidy bow at the end of this one. No affirmation or resolution to seize the day and tomorrow is a brighter future. I have to really stop myself from going ahead and doing a “happily ever after” here because the reality is that this is really just the starting line. I will always be working towards feeling “enough” for myself and not for everyone else. I will inevitably circle back and retreat one day and surge forward the next. It’s all part of a process, and I get that. I embrace that. But I will say one thing.
Thank you to everyone and everything that questioned me. Your challenges may have cut me down, but I manage to find myself standing taller each time. Accuse me of being whatever you think I’m being, because ultimately, it’s what I think of myself that matters most. No, I’m not acting white. I’m just being me, take it or leave it.