Complexities of Complexion

By outward appearance, this writer looks white—but she doesn't see herself that way.

By outward appearance, I look white. My skin tone is fair, my eyes are hazel and my hair is dark blonde. By all accounts, I display the Norwegian-American traits from my dad's side of my family.

My mom's Mexican-American side of my family shows through in my Spanish language skills, my affinity for Mexican literature and artwork, travel throughout Mexico, and investigating all there is to learn about the history of Mexico and the complex political relationship that exists between our two countries. It is the reason why I am a bilingual educator today.

In a nation so fixated on defining ourselves based on complexion and appearance, I have struggled my whole life to figure out where I fit in. What do you do when the complexion with which you were born does not reflect your culture or heritage? When people are quick to identify the privileges associated with being born with a light complexion, how do you convince them of the pressure associated with it? How does one explain the juxtaposition between being seen as a "white" person but not seeing oneself that way?

To me, complexion is incredibly complex.

My complexion has provided me the privilege of being praised for my bilingualism: "You speak Spanish so well! Where did you learn it?" But it has pressured me to explain myself to everyone I meet: "Well, I am white, but I grew up mainly with my mom's Mexican side of the family, so I heard Spanish growing up, and that's what made me want to learn it formally."

My complexion has provided me the privilege of observing the deep-seated racism so evident in our culture without being an actual recipient of it. For example, when I was younger, I attended a friend's family gathering where someone thought it would be funny to scrawl "Mexi-" in front of the "Cans Only" sign posted over the recycle bin. Knowing they didn't see me as Mexican, I was pressured to choose between suffering in a silent rage at their ignorance or standing up and risking rejection.

My complexion has provided me the privilege of having an educational experience where the standard lessons about history, literature and cultural expression all involved people who looked like me. Wondering why I never learned about the brown, Spanish-speaking people who helped build this country, those who wrote beautiful literature and shaped our nation's culture, I was pressured to choose between blindly accepting the notion that only white people had academic value or to seek out counter versions of history told from the perspectives of the oppressed.

Reconciling the duality of seeing myself as Mexican while my complexion tells a different story has been a lifetime struggle for me. And, perhaps, there's a reason for that. Perhaps I should not feel the need to choose one identity over the other. Perhaps I need to forge for myself a new identity, an identity that is more inclusive of ALL of who I am. And, perhaps it is this identity that has already given me the perspective I needed to become an effective culturally-responsive educator.

Traditionally, our schools have operated under the assumption that identity is something that should be explored at home or with friends—but my goal is to demystify the concept of identity for my students. All humans are cultural beings with multiple identities, some of which are racial, linguistic, gender, regional, national and religious. Some identities are fixed while others are fluid. Some are imposed upon us, and some can be self-selected. My experience has led me to believe we do not have to choose one identity over the other. Our various identities serve to make us the complex and unique people we are today. And, engaging multiple points of view strengthens the one piece of our identities we all have in common: co-creators of the future.  

Nichole Berg is a middle school bilingual resource teacher in Madison, Wis.

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