When I was younger my mom told me how important it was to surround yourself with people who are different from you. If the company you keep only looks like you, it can give you a one-dimensional view of life. However, my early childhood upbringing didn’t give me the opportunity to explore this lifestyle.
In my elementary and middle school years I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood and was one of few Afro-Latina/black children who attended my school. I constantly felt like the outlier and only wanted to find ways to blend in and fit the status quo. One of the more unfortunate occurrences was bullying for my hair and skin tone. I remember being told on more than one occasion that “it wasn’t crazy hair day” for simply wearing my hair in its natural form. For this reason, I never truly identified with my American side and although I did my best to assimilate, I never felt 100% at home. This meant being stuck in the middle of not feeling American enough, and not daring to accept my ethnic roots. As a child living in a neighborhood that was void of my own color I was often pressured into putting down parts of myself. I was belittled into believing that people who came from South America weren’t as great as Americans. I attribute this to the internalized racism and colorism absorbed from the interactions I had with the children around me. Of course I knew it wasn’t entirely their fault and came from the biased teachings of their parents.
In the end, I ended up switching schools because of my developing identity crisis and the isolation that comes with being a minority in a place where you aren’t represented. Psychologists call this: the “minority stress” something that most ethnically diverse, and sexually diverse people experience on a day to day basis. Eventually, this subsided when I visited South America and the Dominican Republic. It was initially an odd experience as someone who had been conditioned by society to dislike the very thing that makes them who they are. But days into the trip I began to feel an overwhelming sense of joy. I thought to myself “why is everyone saying this is bad?” The people, the music, the colors, and the beauty – everything was perfect in my eyes. Going into small shops and getting my hair braided, or purchasing elaborate dresses from locally owned shops allowed me to participate in my people’s community and way of life. This was the first time I had worn my natural hair or embraced ethnic clothing in years. Of course I’m not putting down the nuances of American society, but I noticed that it wasn’t as vibrant and deeply rooted as my Latina heritage.
I ended up speaking to my mom and grandparents to get a greater sense of what our culture means to us and the ways it manifests into our lives. I began to understand that embracing my true identity was an act of defiance in and of itself. Identity comes in many different shapes and sizes. It comes in many forms and manifests itself in a plethora of different ways. It can be an explosion of colors, sights, and sounds. Or remain dormant forced into submission by the higher powers of society. My journey with my own identity was long and didn’t come to me easy. As a-mixed race third generation American I struggled with racial identity, national identity, ethnic identity, and personal identity. Being able to explore Latin countries gave me an incredibly new perception of how these identities all intersected and I learned a vital lesson: To cement yourself into a culture viewed as backwards by the people you are surrounded by is to go against acceptance and is often viewed as going against the majority. I imagine it is the same for Asian, Native, African, and other POC living their life according to an American rulebook.
When I switched schools I ended up in a much more ethnically diverse environment and had the chance to travel as well as participate in rich cultural celebrations such as Diwali. As I progressed through my highschool career I became more focused on learning about other cultures and participating in intersectional advocacy for girl’s like myself. Not only is this beneficial for the individual but it allows one to work surrounded by a community that is for you and that values your ethnic, national, and racial identity as a truly complex,and beautiful combination.
Finally being able to practice my mother’s early teachings, I now surround myself with people who represent a large span of ethnic, racial, and religious groups. As people of color it is important that we unite and look to one another as a source of connection and consolation. Having other women of color and non-ethnic allies to discuss issues and insecurities with is so extremely important to one’s personal growth with their own culture. If you lack exposure to other traditions ,languages, food, etc., I believe you are headed straight down the path of ignorance (of course this isn’t anyone’s fault if they lack the resources). But, if you choose to avoid these things purposefully, it creates an individualistic mentality that brings down the whole group.
Spreading culture peacefully in small ways to those around you, and taking the time to respectfully engage with others in their cultural practices is an eye-opener. Not only does it reveal ethnic beauty of the world, but it brings you one step closer to valuing the uniqueness of your own background. Thus, allowing you to wear your skin proudly, as a tribute to those who came before you and fought for the right to love who they are and where they came from.