Yes, I Want to Check ‘White’ AND ‘Hispanic’ On Your Form

It was the Homecoming game, senior year of high school. Crisp fall air had arrived but it was still much too warm for my heavy letterman jacket, and I shifted under the weight of my homecoming mum every few minutes. At half time, I was expected on the field for a token recognition ceremony. My PSAT scores the spring before had earned me the dubious award of National Hispanic Merit Scholar, a title that makes me think I probably wouldn’t have earned the National Merit Scholar award, no ethnic qualifier. Saying my name to a crowd of my not-listening peers was my school’s way of acknowledging the score before getting to what they really cared about: Homecoming Court, then who won the game.

But, some students were listening: In particular, a boy I knew and had been kind of friends with for years was standing on the sidelines and eager to participate. “Is this a joke?” He yelled over the announcer after my name and award was said. “She’s not Hispanic. You’re not Hispanic. Look how pale you are!” Several of the boys standing with him laughed, some made motions like they were trying to wave me off the field.

My face burned. I stared at the ground and hurried away as soon as I was dismissed, avoiding everyone’s eyes. My then-boyfriend and friends hadn’t heard his words; in fact, almost no one else did. But still when I got home that night I stared at myself in the mirror for several long minutes and examined my reflection. It remained familiar but that night I saw what he and everyone else must have seen, how they must have seen it: Green eyes, light brown hair, light skin. I had never wanted to change much about my appearance until that moment when I first thought that I would give anything to have an accent, or to look more like my “full” Salvadorean cousins. I wanted something that would make me “look Hispanic,” that would identify me without doubt.

During one of those yearly pilgrimages to set the record straight, the Front Office had the gall to ask [my mother] if she was sure she wasn’t French, not Hispanic. Her voice stayed even as she assured them that she did in fact know where she had spent the first 17 years of her life. I trembled with unvoiced frustration.

I have always been proud of my heritage, of my mother and our family that immigrated to the US from El Salvador in the 70s. My mother and I spoke a mix of English and Spanish at home, and I have been well educated in the ins and outs of different Hispanic cultures, and especially of Salvadorean practices and food. I have always felt Hispanic, identified with the culture, the people, and the language.

Yet others acted as if they knew better. My mother had to show up at my high school about once a year and demand (in rapid-fire Spanish, for effect) that my transcripts show my ethnicity as Hispanic, because I was Hispanic, despite everyone’s insistence that I was “too white.” Despite over 30 years of life in the US, my mother still has a strong Salvadorean accent that often adds an e- to the beginning of words that start with s. She also has black hair, blue eyes, and light skin. During one of those yearly pilgrimages to set the record straight, the Front Office had the gall to ask her if she was sure she wasn’t French, not Hispanic. Her voice stayed even as she assured them that she did in fact know where she had spent the first 17 years of her life. I trembled with unvoiced frustration.

Several people have asked if I pretended at my ethnicity to game the system, to use Affirmative Action to get into college.

It’s likely that none of this would have happened if Affirmative Action wasn’t the law of the land in Texas high schools and colleges. If racial and ethnic quotas didn’t have to be met and scholarships diligently given out, I probably would have just been noted as ‘White, but is fluent in Spanish for some reason?’ But I’m not here to argue the merits and faults of Affirmative Action.

Over the years, I have had this strange interaction time and again. Like my mother being asked if she was sure she was Salvadorean, (“Si, por supuesto…”), people often try to clarify my race and ethnicity, as if I might be unsure. Several people have asked if I pretended at my ethnicity to game the system, to use Affirmative Action to get into college. It’s been a long time since I’ve replied to that with anything resembling sincerity; mostly I just thank them for the insult and move on. I’ve often heard, “But you don’t look Hispanic…” and friends used to “revoke my Hispanic card” whenever they thought it would be funny, as if they were just letting me play at being Hispanic the rest of the time. It was never funny, it was frustrating.

These remarks aren’t racist, exactly, but they are prejudiced. Saying that I’m “too white” to be Hispanic, or that I don’t “look Hispanic,” is ignorant because ethnicity and race aren’t the same thing. Race, in an extremely loose and problematic definition, is mainly based on the color of skin. Mine is pretty light, and I check my race as ‘white.’ Ethnicity however is all tied up in heritage, culture, language, national identity, and religion; it has little to do with appearance. It’s where you’re from, where your family is from, who your people are, and (spoiler!) people can be born anywhere. This is why I call myself white, but not Caucasian. I don’t think anyone in my family has ever even been to the Caucuses, let alone been a member of that ethnic group.

Saying I’m “too white” to fit that profile implies a scale of whiteness, one in which I am too far on the light side to qualify as Hispanic. Sometimes it feels like they’re trying to sell me on an upgrade, saying I’m “too white” to be Hispanic like a sleazy car salesman might say I’m “too smart” to settle for a base model car. Those words — ‘too white’ — feel grimy.

It is though, a bit racist. When people say I’m “too white” to be Hispanic, what they’re actually saying is that all Hispanic people have to have darker skin. Saying I’m “too white” to fit that profile implies a scale of whiteness, one in which I am too far on the light side to qualify as Hispanic. Sometimes it feels like they’re trying to sell me on an upgrade, saying I’m “too white” to be Hispanic like a sleazy car salesman might say I’m “too smart” to settle for a base model car. Those words — ‘too white’ — feel grimy.

And then, just for fun, there’s culture too, which isn’t based in biology at all but in learned social norms. Culture is part of why England and The United States are different. Despite sometimes appearing similar in part because many white English settlers populated a large part of the US (race) and many Americans have English ancestry (ethnicity) — we’re socially different and have different values (culture).

Race, ethnicity, culture. They’re not the same things, or we wouldn’t have different words for them. Anyone who says I’m “too white” to be Hispanic doesn’t know how these words work. It’s white AND Hispanic, not white OR Hispanic.