July 15, 2016
By Darcy Caballero
I am a light-skinned Latina, don’t have an accent when I speak, and grew up in a predominantly white suburb of Houston. In order to fit in with my peers, I had to adopt a very “white” persona quickly and, over time, began hiding my culture until I reached college and learned to love it.
In December, I went to go see the Star Wars premiere with my best friend, her boyfriend, and his parents who are wonderful, very delightful, funny people. They are also very white and tend not to interact much with people of color outside of the employees at his office.
We were to drive to his parents’ house and would all take a car from there to the movie theater. It was my first time meeting his parents, and, honestly, I’m pretty used to white parents. I’ve even learned to smile politely at all the backhanded compliments, such as “oh, you’re one of the Good Ones™” (whatever that means).
When we all got in his truck, his dad was making some nice small talk with me. He cracked a few jokes and was just generally trying to get to know me better, which I appreciated.
And then he turned to me and said:”Now since you’re Hispanic, but you grew up around white people so your accent isn’t really there. But you can turn it on whenever you want, right? Like I know other Hispanic people who they can turn on that accent.”
I was absolutely floored. I had no idea how to respond and I looked at my best friend with my mouth agape because this was an actual question/”compliment” that I was going to have to respond to. I basically said something to the effect of “um, I don’t really ever need to?”
I had to then wait in line with them and sit through the movie with them, pretending like I was completely okay. The entire time, however, I was still in shock that someone had asked me such a tone-deaf question.
I was thinking about it during the whole movie and realized that the reason it had affected me so deeply is that I had spent my entire life trying to blend in with white people, and a white man has the power to make me go all the way back to square one with a simple question. It felt like I’d been sniffed out after years of disguising myself properly. There is an immense amount of privilege that comes with being light-skinned—and I’m well aware of it—but this question shows that, regardless of how close I am to whiteness, I will never fully be white and people know that.
I know that, to him, this question was probably very innocent and was not intended to be offensive. It wasn’t even THAT racist, just a little tone-deaf…but that’s all it takes. Every time someone makes fun of my mom’s accent, they’re seeing her as inferior because she doesn’t speak perfect English (even though she learned it by watching game shows); when he asked me if I could “turn on the accent”, he was making the very clear distinction between him (white) and me (a non-white) and then asking an ignorant question about doing an accent (which one? Hispanics don’t have homogenous accents…).
Having the right intentions does not matter. Whether he meant it in a nice or malicious way is irrelevant because I still felt incredibly ostracized from the group. I still felt an almost tangible barrier between them and me. The feeling of feeling singled out like that is almost indescribable. It was a mixture of feeling inferior, alone, and as if being different from them was a bad thing. The rest of the night, I was even afraid that he might continue asking the same types of questions and that I would have to answer them out of politeness.
In that moment, I felt uncomfortable and isolated,and I guess that’s the best way to summarize how a microaggression feels. It’s small so you shouldn’t REALLY care and they probably didn’t mean anything bad by it, but you can’t help feeling hurt nonetheless…and that’s what matters. It doesn’t matter if you’re afraid they’ll be upset that you think they’re a racist. One thing that I constantly have to remind myself is that how you feel in a moment when someone makes a tone-deaf or ignorant comment about your ethnicity or experience ALWAYS comes before someone getting upset that you think they’re racist.