The misidentification of one’s ethnic background can be an innocent act. Other times, hostility takes root, exposing the harbored hatred against a group that’s not one’s own. During the early years of my life, albeit coming from a Latino background, I never experienced much hostility for how I looked. While I’m white passing, — and am cognizant of the privileges I possess from the status — I’m certainly not white.
White-passing can be defined as the assumption that anybody who is optically perceived as white, is white. However, this misinterpretation can be particularly damaging, and the phrase essentially washes away uniqueness.
I grew up in mostly white communities; many of my friend groups were made of mostly white individuals who didn’t seem to interact with communities of color. As a result of de facto segregation, the schools I attended mainly consisted of white students, further eliminating any opportunity at interacting with or learning alongside these communities. Fortunately, I didn’t seem to experience this form of isolation. But should this be an excuse for how exclusive this crowd is?
Once middle school rolled around, I began to feel the heat of systematic racism.
Phrases like “you’re not Latino” and “you look so white” have plagued my form of self, stemming back to my youth. I never truly understood the gravity of these misconceptions, so I tended to shrug them off without much thought. As the years went on, it became increasingly transparent that my white-passing token wasn’t as effective as it was made out to be.
As a high school athlete, I’d find myself at our local soccer stadium quite often. And during one of our practices, one of my teammates came up to me and stated that my skin pigmentation and hair were the exact same color, insisting that the monochrome complexion was “bizarre.” I hadn’t thought about it too much at the time, especially since I’ve never received the blunt end of verbal racism before, so as usual, I decided not to pay it much thought.
As the years went on my mind became more fixated on my formative experiences. For so long, my Puerto Rican background became discounted by the ignorance of others. I never felt in tune with my roots, nor did I ever try to fight for that recognition. When I was recognized as being a member of a marginalized community, a back-handed insult would follow based on my physical appearance.
I never thought that I’d continue to experience and succumb to these altercations after this incident; especially once my collegiate career was in sight. I became optimistic that my peers would be more cognizant of difference and embrace the diversity that was Cornell University. Oh boy, was I gravely mistaken.
Coming into Cornell as an underrepresented minority in STEM, I’d often glance at the pools of students, many of which were not of my ethnic background. This petrified me, as I had believed associating myself with the general STEM population, that didn’t usually make room for people with my ethnic background, would pose a unique challenge. To my surprise, my theory was debunked, as I was able to join communities like Underrepresented Minorities in Computing and foster friendships amongst a plethora of students who confronted similar challenges as I did.
Unfortunately, this wouldn’t protect me from future racial assault. During sophomore year, I became heavily invested in applying for summer internships. One classmate who had been in a few of my computer science courses decided to strike up a conversation on his inability to secure a summer position; he attributed this to not being a minority student where affirmative action would give what he called an “advantage.” What started as an understandable inquiry began to show itself as hate-filled frustration.
The student began his rant. He explained to me that the opportunities given to Latinos unfairly deprived him from experiences. Essentially, “my kind” — his words — didn’t possess the intellectual capabilities to pursue anything grander than what marginalized groups have already been subjected to.
For him to construe affirmative action as an “advantage” for minority students was upsetting. I don’t think any member of a historically marginalized community would choose marginalization, disenfranchisement and systematic discrimination at every stage of their educational and professional career for the small “advantage” that affirmative action might confer. If anything, those considerations are just a first step of what BIPOC individuals deserve.
At each days’ end, I slumber comfortably knowing my roots; I now fully embrace my Latino heritage that I have been disconnected from for so long. And although white-passing folks historically and currently benefit from their physical appearances, I am one that hasn’t been saved from racist comments. Surprisingly most of these encounters were with other BIPOC individuals discounting my personhood and heritage.
Loss of identity. Loss of community. Loss of individuality. For as long as the Latinx and Black communities can remember in White America, the question would repeatedly present itself: “Who are your people?” Ethnic erosion begins to take place as people are stripped of their identity. As my family in Puerto Rico continues to battle cultural erosion, I know my place in society — some marginalized American. Even though the country has impressively expanded in the acknowledgement of difference and inclusion of others, when can I just be recognized for who I am and not be subjected to a racial hierarchy? 2016 through 2020 proved as a time where moral regression, fueled by racial partisanship, seemed possible. No, alive.
To my colleagues at Cornell: don’t take it upon yourselves to tell a BIPOC individual how they should identify. Rather, have an informative conversation about racial discrimination and how these injustices can be mitigated. White-passing people will never have the same social fortune as white folks, and it’s imperative to recognize that difference to aid in a positive metamorphosis towards racial equality.
Canaan Delgado is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Land of Canaan runs every other Wednesday this semester.