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Tuesday, March 15

On Race and Identity, Part 1


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This is a series of stories that is part of my own healing. I welcome you to read along, or not, but I'm going to write it anyway. I hope you take something good from it, and I hope I do too.

If you have thoughts of suicide, please call 1 (800) 273-8255 to reach the National Suicide Crisis Hotline, or call 911. Please know, admitting help is not a failure. Life can be beautiful, you just have to live it first.
I had a good friend of mine recently ask, “When was the first time you realized you weren’t white?”

I had never been asked a question like that before. I imagined that I was caught off-guard in the way LGBTQI people feel when someone first asks them, “When did you know you were Gay/Trans/Bisexual/etc?”

Invariably the answer is always, “I just knew I was me. I didn’t know that was a thing that I should doubt, until someone told me I was different.”

I grew up with one older sister. Most of my memories, though, are of me playing alone while she was at school and my father slept. He worked nights, while my mother worked days in order to split caretaking responsibilities and save money on child care. This meant that when I woke up from my nap to a still sleeping father, I would routinely sneak off the bed, and quietly commence playing - mostly with things I wasn’t supposed to play with like my mother’s sewing supplies and makeup. My most fond memories are those when I pretended I was a teacher to a classroom of stuffed animals. I taught them cursive - really, just one cursive letter, “e,” in continuous loops across a small notepad.

I was just me, and I never thought anything of it. Even the few times my mother would drop us off with a babysitter and I would see children of other colors (mostly white), I just thought of them as other children. I just wanted to play, all the time, as much as I could and I really gave no care to who was around to play with me. I just wanted to play.

I started school with Pre-K, which at the time was new. Now they have things like VPK, Pre-K 3-4, actual Pre-K, and then Kindergarten. Pre-K at my school was a new program and I knew this because my sister started school in Kindergarten, and I remember the distinction of having known I went through Pre-K and she hadn’t.

I went to the neighborhood school which was incredibly diverse. In my class were children of all colors. White, Black, Hispanic. My best friend in Pre-K was Pakistani. She told me her father called her “Princess,” and that was because she “was a real princess.” I didn’t believe her, right off the bat. Why would a princess, a real one, be at a school with me, a non-princess? My inquisitive mind would not rest. Obviously this was a pet name her father gave to her, and my 4-year old mind would have none of it. I let her keep her fantasy of being a real princess. I wasn’t in the habit of crushing dreams, at least not at 4.

I remember there was a small blonde girl, smaller than me (and I was pretty small), who could speak Spanish. I suppose this was the first time I tried to reconcile Race and Language. Why could this girl, who seemed in all aspects a white girl, speak Spanish?

I posed the question to my mother and I can’t remember clearly her answer, but it was essentially flippant - I asked “Why?” incessantly and by this point, my mother had taken a habit of her own: Answering my “Why?” with “That’s why.”

While this didn’t satisfy my curiosity, I learned to accept this white girl speaking Spanish as a fact in the world in which I lived. She was just the way she was, because she was that way, and that was that.

Only later, as an adult, did I grasp the biological and sociological aspects of her identity. Spanish people looked all sorts of different ways and non-Spanish people could speak Spanish. She was likely one of those people, of Spanish or Hispanic heritage, or not, and could speak English and Spanish because she likely grew up in a bilingual household.

Why does no one explain these things to 4-year olds? I really could have handled the answer by then. It wouldn’t have crushed me.

I just would’ve accepted it as fact, and moved on to my bigger concerns like, when is the next time I can spin for hours in my mother’s sewing chair?

(I did this once until my nose bled after having woken up from my nap, and I ran crying to wake my sleeping father. Imagine waking up to your child, shirt soaked in blood - my nose was running with blood for quite awhile, but I kept spinning. “Papa! Papa!” I cried. He immediately ripped my shirt off of me, obviously thinking his 3 year-old had stabbed herself or something. Imagine his relief, realizing she just had a penchant for spinning in circles and got a little carried away.)

My father was fluent in Spanish. He could speak three languages. Bisaya (a Filipino dialect), English and Spanish. So, I knew all types of people could speak all types of languages. Spanish people weren’t the only Spanish speakers, and not all people who could speak Spanish had tan skin and dark hair. Some of them were blonde, some of them were Filipino, some of them were Puerto Rican, some of them were Mexican. I knew this because there were children in my class that fit these observations. By 4, I had concluded that language was not an indicator of who a person was. It was simply one of many aspects that made up “them.”

I was me, and they were them, and that was that.

My best friend in Kindergarten was a boy. I would tickle his hands with my pigtails and he would laugh the hardest laugh I’d ever seen anyone in my 5 years of being alive, besides my father, laugh. I relished in this. We were great friends. I did realize something at this point which was novel to me. I realized most of the girls played with other girls, and most of the boys played with other boys. I just wanted to play. It struck me then that I was at least slightly different than most girls. I knew I was a girl. I knew my friend was a boy. I knew he was my friend, and that was all that mattered to me.

It never struck me that we were of different races. He was white and I was Filipino. He never brought it up to me, and I never brought it up to him, and everyday he’d sit next to me and I’d tickle his hands with my pigtails until he would laugh so loudly we had to be separated.

Kindergarten was the first time I learned there was such a thing as “boy” crayons and “girl” crayons. A boy told me this. I didn’t believe him. Colors were colors and this boy was dumb. I was 5 or 6, but I knew when someone was just full of shit. I colored with whatever crayons I wanted because I could and no one was stopping me - least of all, a boy I thought was dumb.

I also learned in Kindergarten that children can be quite cruel.

I remember standing in line for lunch in the cafeteria. A boy was behind me, and I turned around to him. He had taken his fingers and pulled at the corners of his eyes and said to me, “Ching chong ching chong,” and laughed.

I was perplexed.

What did these words mean?

Why is he contorting his face?

I concluded something was intellectually inept about this child but I couldn’t shake the cruelty of his voice or his actions.

Why did he do this? What does it mean? Why did he do it to me? Why did he think it was funny? Why did it hurt my feelings?

I didn’t cry. In fact, I rarely cried at school. I just took in my experiences with the heart of an observer, and came to conclusions based on my previous experiences.

This child was a boy, and I had a friend that was a boy. He was white, and so was my friend. Not all boys were cruel, not all white people were cruel and boys could be friends with girls, too. Clearly, this boy was an anomaly.

I wouldn’t dignify him with a response.

I turned my back to that boy, but in my heart was still a feeling of uneasiness.

This was my first experience with racism, and though I didn’t know it at the time, it was the first moment in my life when I realized that something else about me made me quite different from the rest of the children I knew.

That boy wasn’t in any of my classes for the duration of elementary school. Besides him, I didn’t experience much racism, if any, ever. I forgot, over time, how different I was.

As far as demographics were concerned, I was the only Filipino at my school, besides my sister.

In 1st grade, another Filipino girl began attending my elementary school. She had an accent and spoke Tagalog fluently. I had an American accent and could only speak English. She was Filipino and I was Filipino, this I knew. But I wasn’t quite like her, and she wasn’t quite like me. I learned then that Filipino children were different too. We looked different, we sounded different, and we acted differently too. Maybe we were like Spanish and Hispanic people; different with some things the same.

I accepted that we could have one thing in common, but not all things. And that was okay. I could exist, and so could she, and we could both be Filipino, and that was that.

I had many friends in elementary school. The majority of them were Puerto Rican, because that was the predominant demographic of families where I grew up. I also had black friends, a bi-racial white/Chinese friend, a gay friend, a bi-racial Puerto Rican/American Indian friend, of course my Pakistani princess, and I loved my teachers too - so I had old friends and young friends.

I was tested and classified, so to speak, as a Gifted learner so once a week I would be shipped off to another elementary school to attend class with other Gifted children. There, I saw all types of children who were advanced students like me and I accepted that all types of people could be “Gifted.”

I just wanted to be with friends. Nothing else really mattered to me.

It wasn’t until middle school when I realized what race was and that it was a thing people used to be divisive.


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