Brown in America: A lesson in internalized whiteness

by Larissa Dzegar

I watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Trevor Noah talk about race and “becoming black” in America as part of the PEN World Voices Festival last night. We need to talk about our racial identities right now and share our stories, so here is another slice of mine regarding my racial identity:

I have been writing a memoir about this for the past three years, and the first line is, “There are two versions of me, and both are true.” I can’t think of a better way to sum it up.

As we say these days, I wasn’t always woke. Growing up in Latin America, I didn’t think of myself as Latina, or as brown, or as other. I identified as white in Brazil, and I never, ever anticipated that my racial identity would change one day.

Although my K-12 education took place in an American school and most of my teachers were American, they did not know to prepare me for the greatest paradigm shift of my life: in America, I would no longer be white. How does one even prepare someone for that? Imagine being told that a part of your identity you consider unshakable would change when you went to a different country. It’s not teachable because it’s not imaginable.

Losing your whiteness in America is a big deal. In America, identity is everything, and it’s fragile. It is common to feel that one’s identity is threatened, and so it is an ever-present conversation. You have to know who you are, and you have to be unapologetic about it.

I had neither the vocabulary nor the attitude to understand what was happening. I didn’t know words like “white privilege” or “micro aggression.” And I didn’t know what it meant to not be white, not even in theory.

Like most people who grow up identifying with dominant culture, my relationship to racism was one of distant empathy mixed with confusion and ignorance.

I moved to America and “became” a person of color at age 18, but my sensibility (or lack thereof) was influenced by my privileged and removed upbringing. I didn’t want to live in the multicultural house; I didn’t believe in self-segregation. I didn’t think white people thrived off their privilege; hard work was just hard work. I didn’t want to attend the meetings for Latino students or students of color; I did not desire to be an ally in anyone’s anger. I didn’t want to write a paper on the only Latino poet we studied that semester; bitterness about being marginalized did not resonate with me.

Yet.

American racism makes warriors of even the sleepiest, eventually.

One day, someone confused me for a custodian who had come to clean up a young white woman’s vomit. I was wearing sweatpants that day, and I thought it was because of my outfit. But a young white woman in sweatpants walked into the scene shortly after, and was not confused for a custodian. It was assumed she was a student, and I realized she would never, ever have to worry about being mistaken for a custodian.

And within me stirred a flare of rage. (I do not pretend that even this first encounter is not packed with privilege. What I lost before I lost my whiteness was my social class. And we can’t ignore that: I did not want to be confused for a custodian because that would mean I belonged to a lower class.)

And then a white man wanted to call me his BG (Brazilian Girlfriend) and told me his mother would love how exotic I was. And then five more white men I dated said the same thing. And then a security guard asked me if I was a delivery person at the grocery store where I shopped regularly. And then an employer asked how come I speak English so good. And then my bag kept getting checked by security points in the subway. And none of this was happening to the white people around me. At least not nearly with the same frequency.

I started to wake up, but I didn’t want to. I just wanted to continue being the white girl without these problems.

I learned to “pass” for white. It’s easy enough: don’t tan, talk white, don’t wear bright colors, keep your voice down, be pretty, straighten your hair, wear expensive accessories, and don’t talk about race.

But I still had to explain to my white friends that while they could go anywhere dressed like dirty hipsters, I needed a Prada bag in order to stand a chance at being treated like I belonged in most places. I still had to tell my white boyfriends that they could not parade my Brazilian heritage around like a trophy. I was still always slightly on edge, waiting for someone to make me prove that I was educated.

And I started to notice things.

If someone said to me (circa 2005), “let’s go watch a romantic comedy,” I could safely assume and take for granted that the couple would be white (as well as heterosexual, mid-upper class, college educated, able-bodied, able-minded, and fit). Almost everything was catered for and reflected dominant culture. And if there was a protagonist of color, it was a thing. Everyone noticed. They couldn’t just be a person. And it hit me: a person of color is never just a person, not the way a white person is. They are always a person of color.

I woke the f up.

You could not have ever convinced my younger asleep self that I would end up waving the racial justice flag, but it happened.

My story isn’t just one of “becoming brown” in America, it’s one of choosing brown, and then of feeling pride in brown. I realize, too, that this is a privilege of being a light-skinned person of color.

I could easily move. I could also easily live a life of minimal contact with racial justice activism; I know many Brazilians and other Latinos who never talk or think about any of this. That’s a choice. People say you can’t unknow what you know, you can’t go back to sleep once you’re woke. But I know that is not true. It is much easier to go back to sleep. Being woke and staying woke is a choice, and it’s the harder one.

It means you get told you’re hypersensitive, annoying, and angry. It means you feel like a crazy person half the time, wondering if what just happened was actually racist or if you’re reading into things. It means well-meaning people will tell you to just stop it already, you’re not actually oppressed.

It also means you. never. stop. hoping.

Hope is the root of resistance, and the fight for equality cannot last without it.

I am tired a lot of the time. I’m tired of people I’m close to being embarrassed of my social justice talk. I’m tired of walking on eggshells so as not to come across as the hypersensitive liberal angry person. I’m tired of protesting and marching and posting things on facebook only to hear that it doesn’t do anything and this isn’t the way to change things.

But I keep doing it. Not only because I feel I have to or because we have a responsibility to each other, but because I am hopeful that change is possible.

History errs on the side of progress.

And mine is a story of progress.

So, stay woke. The world is ours to change.

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