Growing up moving in and out of countries, languages and cultures was a roller coaster.
Growing up diplomatic was embarrassing, privileged, dangerous, and culture shock inducing.
After my Father died, my sister in law, who happens to be Chinese/Canadian, told me, you don’t count, white people don’t have a culture. I never said anything back to her, it wasn’t my place. I knew then, like I do now, that my experiences walking through this world is vastly different.
Growing up, I was taught, never to say anything. I was always acutely aware of my white skin, and even though the term didn’t exist, I understood that it came with a privilege. I was called many names in every country, I was very pale, with white blonde hair, I stood out everywhere we went. My parents made us learn about cultures, be compassionate about the history, the beauty we were living in and around, although I could never step into someone else’s shoes, I had to be compassionate about their point of view. I knew I could never fully identify with a classmates skin, and what that held for them. I want to get that out of the way. As someone with white skin, my walk through life is and was different, but one posting, at 15, made me incredibly aware of racism and sexism.
My first school bus ride in Caracas, I found myself sitting in the back, one of my classmates looked back at the driver behind us, and called him “monkey” – I was shocked, having never heard anyone use that term, accept for my Mother calling me a little monkey when I climbed up trees… The driver behind us was darker skinned, for me, it didn’t take much for people to be darker than me, so I was mystified and horrified by the comment. I didn’t say anything, I learned early on, it was never my place in another country to point out racism, I was taught to observe like an anthropologist. It ate at me tho, I couldn’t even repeat it, or ask, I was both ashamed that I didn’t say anything, and relieved that I didn’t say anything in a new country.
By my 4th day of school, everyone was calling me Gringa. It was a term I had heard before, it was a term that made me feel uncomfortable. This time though, it was a word that started to get used to degrade me as a young woman. When I couldn’t get a word out in Spanish, I was referred to as a stupid Gringa, when I told a young man that I wasn’t cool with his advances at a party, he was 18, I was 15, he began calling me Gringa in a disturbing and menacing voice, like if I didn’t make out with him, it was because I was a stupid Gringa. I remained quiet. I was taught to never say anything.
At 15, in a sense, I learned that my skin meant 2 things, but my gender meant only one thing in Caracas. Men, who knew better, called me gringa on a daily basis, it felt like a word that slowly chipped away at my soul as a woman, but also helped me build a hard bullet proof wall to protect myself. When I approached my Father about it, he quietly told me to ignore it. That yes, it was degrading, but that I had to get used it, because that is what I was going to be called, like a pet name. I don’t think I could really explain how I felt, that as a young woman, I just felt I couldn’t win, ever.
I had a hard time explaining that the word somehow felt worse, not because of my skin colour, but because of my gender. like I was less than. If I couldn’t reply in Spanish, I was called that. If I was seen as dumber, because I was in a mix of culture shock and brain freeze, I was called that name, like it was a blanket word used for my ineptness in a country I didn’t belong to. In a country, that didn’t value women, because they needed a man’s permission to have a bank account, to leave the country, to own a car, to own a home, to have a job that word had power, it pushed me down.
So when I was online with friends on whatsapp. They joked that their kids were Gringos and Gringas… Some of these friends are white, but grew up in South America, now raising kids in other countries, stating that their kids, not speaking Spanish, with their white skin, are gringas and gringos. It pained me to read these words they used to describe their kids.
It triggered something in me. So I said something. I heard it throughout University, and as an adult, I had gotten used to it, never saying anything. What struck me though, was when it was turned onto children, it felt more raw, like it was being used against the children. That these innocent lovely beings were less than due to their inability to speak Spanish, and for the fact they didn’t understand anything about Latin America. I thought, no, it isn’t right, you are calling your children a name, you have identified them by a blanket word, but you haven’t done anything to introduce that part of you to them. If Spanish and culture meant more to them, they would have introduced it to them. I was horrified, why call their children a name, and laugh about it. When I explained how demeaning it was to me, they laughed and said that I had a frozen Canadian brain. That it was what everyone is called who is white. They didn’t seem to understand, that in the context of their own children, I was pointing out that they were putting them down, they were using a word to make themselves as parents feel more superior for speaking another language for being “latina” and not looking in the mirror and realizing, they are white, they have white privilege, just because you claim to be latina doesn’t mean you can identify with the world that someone with darker skin has. They didn’t get it. They didn’t get, that they were degrading their own children in the process.
As a white woman, I was raised in a patriotically culture. Sure I had privilege, but I also hid behind my father. I hid my feelings and didn’t stand up for people when I should have. I was taught, that I wasn’t to have a voice, that as a diplomatic daughter, whatever I said would come back to my Father. So I never said anything, I never corrected that classmate, and it still bothers me. I was taught that as a young white woman, I wasn’t supposed to share how I felt, that my voice didn’t count, that only my Father’s counted. The word Gringa always made me feel that I was less than, that no matter where I came from, or how much Spanish I learned, I was never going to belong. Which in a sense, I totally understood, because again, my experience, my skin colour brought a different experience, yet, the word was always used against me as a woman, degrading me, making me feel like no matter how much I mastered a language, or tried to fit in, I was never more than a second class citizen. It wasn’t until I became a Mother, that I realized my voice, and what I teach my son, will mean the difference between raising a privileged white prick vs. a privileged white person who stands beside women, and stands beside his friends when he sees injustice.