February 27, 2011

My Queer Secret


At first Queer Secrets seemed to be written in a foreign language. Demisexual. Cisgendered. Panromantic. Genderqueer. Intersex. Dysphoria. These words, which initially seemed pedantic and clinical, came alive as secret makers attached them to their stories. Some people didn’t yet have words to describe themselves. Some loved labels, some rejected them. Queer. Questioning. Asexual. Dapper queer. Dapper femme. Sub. Dom. Genderfluid. Transmasculine. Words of pride. Words of inclusivity and exclusivity. Words that defy the status quo, both heteronormativity and homonormativity.

I’m in my friend and cultural soulmate Hilly’s room (background: half white, half Hispanic, no one believes she's Hispanic, grew up in suburban southern California) , talking about a monologue I just wrote for next year’s Me Too Monologues.

What am I? is a theme of this monologue. I reflect on my gradual whitening since arriving at Duke. I wanted to finally express what word fit me, what experiences were similar to mine. Is my cultural and ethnic ambiguity a disappearing mirage or the symptom of an unchanging quality? I knew that “culturally Hispanic” was no longer cutting it. I’m culturally mixed not culturally Hispanic. And ethnically white? That’s a statement of fact, even if I’m not comfortable putting White on government forms or dating sites. So I’m culturally Hispanic/white, ethnically white. In that order. Like a heteroromantic asexual or a female-bodied genderqueer, right?

My body passes for Hispanic. My experiences pass for Hispanic. My pain and fear and anger and observations pass for Hispanic. The reason why no one ever “finds me out” is that at my core I’m not 100% white. There’s nothing for me to hide. Hispanic cultural and social events are not an opportunity for observation and cross-cultural education (nothing wrong with that, it’s what I do at other cultural and religious events) they are an opportunity for me for feel alive and connected to myself and others who share my values and cultural background.

If someone assumes I'm a recent immigrant or my first language is Spanish I'll correct them. The myriad other assumptions people make are so subtle I don't know if they're in my head, and if they involve culture (not ethnicity) a correction isn't actually needed. Blurting out that I'm white would just create distance and uphold the ridiculous idea of a monolithic whiteness that must be asserted at all times. It's like saying "That dude looks nice, no homo" or that I'm a straight ally.

Why do I feel torn about not correcting people? Eventually someone from Duke will meet my parents (who are quite culturally and ethnically white) and know what's going on. And an ethnically white person who identifies as anything other than white is just not cool.

The ability to navigate different cultures, to be accepted in different countries, to pass for different races is a privilege. A white privilege. A white person who adopts the cultural practices of a non-white people for fun, entertainment or street credibility is engaging in cultural appropriation, and it’s not cool. The key difference is that my Hispanicness is not a front or a phase. When I went to London I didn’t talk in a British accent or dance “whiter.” When I go home to San Antonio I don’t put on a chola tear and a bandanna and eat rice and beans every day. My Hispanicness is not mired in stereotype, irony, fascination or choice. It's not mentioned in contrast to my whiteness, nor is it trumped by my whiteness. It’s just me. All day every day, expressed in subtle ways.

Some people appropriate LGBT culture for fun, entertainment or street credibility. But not everyone who isn’t strictly L, G, B or T is engaging in appropriation. What about the pansexual person who has only been in heterosexual relationships? Polyamorous people? Bigendered, genderqueer and gender-non conforming humans? An effeminate straight dude? Straight people who pass for queer? Heteroflexible folks? A heteroromantic asexual? People who reject labels? Though they aren’t always accepted by the LGBT community, they live in the rainbow tree house. They, along with the entire LGBTQQIA diaspora, keep our community humming and relevant.

I’m not a one-off. Think all the children who have been adopted transculturally/ethnically/racially. The Colombian grad student who was adopted into a white family. People so ethnically/culturally/racially mixed they don’t know who they are, where they came from or where they fit in. Hispanic Afro-Caribbean people. The white guy who was Valedictorian at Morehouse.

Hopefully when we start posting our own queer secrets the words will appear.

My queer secret would say:

I'm culturally Hispanic/white, ethnically white. It's not a phase or a front. I'm not comfortable with the White greek scene at Duke or at nearly all-white events. I don't fit conventional white beauty standards. (But who does?) I talk with a Spanish accent. I'm told I don't dance like a white girl...every time I go out. Sometimes I have to represent Hispanic culture because I can't deal with ignorance and racism. When I embrace my mixedness I feel alive, but also guilty. People like me are supposed to be bad people, or at least the butt of jokes. I'm culturally queer and sexually queer. If I think about this too much my head will explode.

7 comments:

  1. your post is interesting and i imagine it took some courage to post it...the statement "people like me are supposed to be bad people or at least the butt of jokes" is very true. nevertheless, i wonder to what extent viewing yourself as racially/ethnically queer works to over shadow the privilege you receive as a white person who grew up with parents "who are quite culturally and ethnically white."

    "My body passes for Hispanic. My experiences pass for Hispanic...The reason why no one ever “finds me out” is that at my core I’m not 100% white." As an outsider I of course have no idea what your experiences are, but as someone who would view you as white, not assume you were an immigrant, not assume you speak Spanish, and view you as racist for speaking with a Spanish accent...in what ways do you pass as not white to the initial observer?

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  2. I already mentioned the ways this takes away some of my social privilege and makes it harder for me to relate to culturally white people. I don't think it overshadows my privilege much, if at all.

    I speak with a Spanish accent subconsciously and only with city/street/people names where a Spanish accent is appropriate and when speaking Spanish. This is quite different from, for example, a white person using Ebonics in an exaggerated and/or conscious manner, especially when talking to Black people.

    My passing happens more in contexts where there is already some reasons for ethnic ambiguity (ex. Mi Gente meeting, when in Hispanic majority areas like my hometown, in a group of Hispanic people) and when people have a chance to talk to me. I don't think people who see me on street think I'm Hispanic. I'm not THAT ambiguous looking.

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  3. Also, let's be clear that light-skinned, English-as-a-first language, second generation immigrant, upper middle class, parents-have-college-degrees Hispanic people exist. I grew up with plenty of them. So this isn't just about racial/ethnic privilege.

    In general, what I'm trying to say is that I'm ambiguous appearing enough that any markers of Hispanic culture don't seem incongruous or jarring to most people.

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  4. Last comment, I swear. I appear ehtnically ambiguous/non-white due to not meeting conventional white beauty standards. Ex. dark eyes/hair and curvy.

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  5. The word Hispanic carries a history. It means experiences a group of people who have been historically oppressed in this country for the way they speak and look have. We can disagree but this word has a very particular significance to me and my family. There is a difference to me between appreciating and enjoying Hispanic culture and claiming it as part of yourself and your history. How can you claim that word?

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  6. "It means experiences a group of people who have been historically oppressed in this country for the way they speak and look have." That is a very specific component of and interpretation of the definition of Hispanic. As you expected, I disagree with you about that being the main marker of Hispanic people.

    This is why I consider my culture and background Hispanic:
    1. Born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, a city with a majority Hispanic population, in a territory that was formerly part of Mexico. As a result, clearly seeing and experiencing the oppression of Hispanic people because it was entrenched in MY city and MY community.
    2. Went to a Mexican-Roman-Catholic high school
    3. I have ethnically Latina/o relatives by marriage
    4. Traveled to Latin America from an early age
    5. On a more superficial level: grew up participating in Hispanic cultural festivals, eating Mexican food, being a part of Quinces, having almost exclusively Hispanic friends, ect.

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  7. Hmm.. I naturally drift into unconscious (but not "subconscious"--haha) mimicry of people's vocal cadences and accents. This includes speaking English slowly when I talk to ESL Europeans, speaking Spanish with a Central American and/or Spanish accent, adopting a Southern drawl when I answer phone calls from unfamiliar 919 area code numbers or speak to Duke staff/administrators/clerks, etc—and yeah, picking up some black "Ebonics" when I'm hanging out with groups of black friends.
    I'm conscious of it, but not necessarily self-conscious, and I don't feel bad about it. I'm not co-opting anyone's culture. It's about as natural as mimicking body language to communicate better with people.

    Also, I think Veronica's already provided ample response to the question of how she can "claim" the word 'Hispanic'; it's a bit ridiculous in my opinion to assert your biological birthright surpasses the shared experiences that shaped her ethnic/cultural identity.

    (Memes not genes!)

    It's totally the opposite for me: my maternal family hails from Mexico, meaning I am half-Mexican or Hispanic or something. This is a part of my biology. Yet, I sort of tried to embrace that culture via Mi Gente (and hell, I fucking loved being in Costa Rica and Spain) but it just didn't pan out, so I don't really consider myself in any distinct ethnic terms.

    Plunk plunk plunk Veronica is awesome and this was cool to read, what else is there to say...

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