Fully White, Not Fully American: Thoughts On Growing Up White And Hispanic

When I was in the midst of my college application process, it was understood among my friends that I'd won some sort of lottery by being born to Argentinian immigrants. If only they could have been so lucky, my classmates seemed to think, they would have confidently marked the box labeled "Hispanic" on their applications and gone on to throw Frisbees on Harvard Yard.

I'm embarrassed to admit I believed them. I spent years internalizing the idea that my South American roots are little more than a competitive edge I'm lucky to have on my resumes and applications.

Throughout grade school I considered myself fortunate, but not for my parents' subtle accents, which my friends found endearing and I pretended I couldn't hear. I didn't relish the accordion sounds that wafted into my upstairs bedroom when my mom played tango music in the living room. Rather, I thought I was lucky because my parents made me Hispanic, and, in my mind, that afforded me all the wonderful benefits of being a white Latina in the U.S.

I was convinced being Latina granted me admission to UVA. It was a pity, I thought, that the all-American white girl sitting in front of me in AP Literature -- who used words like "whilst" in everyday conversation, and whom I always imagined was eons ahead of me intellectually -- didn't enjoy the privilege I did. Maybe, had her parents been born somewhere other than our hometown, we could have been roommates in college.

Every summer, a few of my friends envied me because I put their tan lines to shame. With green eyes and olive skin, I might have been considered exotic. I think high school boys felt comfortable being attracted to me, because I had that hint of uniqueness -- of foreignness -- yet I was still safely nestled in their romantic comfort zone. After all, I was still white. The first boy I had meaningless sex with in college told me some variation of, "You've got a great South American ass." Maybe I was supposed to be flattered. I probably was.

Realizing the flaws and misled logic in these assumptions has been a long-winded emotional process that, frankly, I'm still working through. I now know, at least objectively, the idea that I got into college solely because of affirmative action is nonsensical (although I do recognize that white women are affirmative action's primary beneficiaries.) The space I take up in the classroom does not rightfully belong to some smarter, more able American white woman. To be candid, my preoccupation with this idea -- the idea that I didn't earn my opportunity for higher education -- has been my college career's most emotionally debilitating battle.

I also now understand that my tan skin is probably more a gift from my Italian grandfather than my Argentinian parents. As it turns out, what is now Argentina began as a Spanish colony, and if you visited my parents' hometowns, the people you'd see would probably strike you as western European-influenced. They do not necessarily share the darker features common among Hispanic people in and around Central America. Having family in a Spanish-speaking country doesn't invariably equip people with tan skin and some "Latin flair" that many people associate with the entire Spanish-speaking world.

Thus, in consciously boiling my Hispanic roots down to a vague sense of foreignness, I diluted a nuanced concept in a way I'd later find offensive. What's more, I dismissed the very real sense of conflict my racial identity presented me with growing up. I see now that my struggle to identify with many of my peers was because I'm fully white, but not fully American.

The differences between my peers and I manifested in small, seemingly trivial ways throughout grade school. In terms of my appearance, suffice it to say I didn't look quite like the fair-skinned and freckled girls in my fourth grade gymnastics class. Many of them had straight blonde hair and abdominal muscles that grew stronger as they were fueled by the unseasoned chicken breast and raw broccoli I (perhaps unfairly) assume they were served on plastic, compartmentalized dinnerware. In my bright spandex leotard, I more closely resembled the cheese empanadas I probably daydreamed about while on the balance beam. For the record, my athletic career has not since flourished.

When I had friends sleep over in high school, I was diligent about making sure the house was stocked with snacks suitable for the occasion -- Tostito's chips, maybe a pint of Ben and Jerry's. These items wouldn't otherwise be found in my family's cabinets (a fact my older brother and I begrudged to no end) but I lived in fear of my friends deeming my house "weird." Serving my American friends queso fresco and crackers, I mused, would be decidedly weird. I opted for safety.

In hindsight, it's clear to me why I felt like more of an outsider than an ordinary guest at my friends' family dinners. Simply, my upbringing didn't fully parallel theirs. Yet this was complicated by the fact that, with my olive (not dark) skin and my green (not brown) eyes and my dirty blonde (not brown) hair, I didn't fit the shortsighted high-schooler's concept of what a "Hispanic" should look like. I just looked white. Tan, maybe, but white.

To be sure, I'm fully aware of the privileges I continue to enjoy because of how I look. If you asked me upon high school graduation what being white was like, I would have told you it allowed me to roam the halls without a pass and without being questioned. Today, I walk up the UVA Corner as a white woman. I know I'll probably never have to worry about prolonged questioning outside my favorite bars. Rarely in my life will I step into a classroom full of peers or workplace full of colleagues and feel as though my intelligence is being underestimated because of my race. This, I understand, is textbook white privilege. I recognize I reap those benefits.

Regardless, I am the child of two Hispanic immigrants. For this reason, I will always identify with a narrative of my mother's arrival in the U.S. with 50 dollars and a suitcase more than I identify with American nationalist rhetoric. I will always feel a surge of pride when I watch the Argentinian national team at the World Cup final, and will rarely feel moved by fireworks on the fourth of July (though I am fully aware of how fortunate I am to have been born here.)

As I said, understanding race's role in my life has been a long emotional journey. Many of my memories are now tainted with shame at my lack of effort to understand my own cultural heritage. I feel particularly ashamed at myself for having resented my parents in the past for not being "white" enough to make me feel normal. Still, after having expressed these thoughts in words, I feel accomplished for having articulated an ongoing battle that's been 20 years in the making. My recent effort to understand whiteness in the U.S. -- and particularly Latina whiteness -- has made my olive skin remarkably more comfortable.