A year ago, I wrote about the complexities of my complexion as a way to engage in telling my own racial narrative and to highlight my experience as a white Latina bilingual educator in our multiracial, multicultural and multilingual community. Hoping I could bring some type of closure or healing to my conflicting identities by naming this issue, I now face the realization that my writing about these complexities did not mean they would end. Instead, they have increased in complexity as I continue to grow.
I made a career change in my district (I’m now a mentor to new educators) and work with a new group of colleagues. And as I engage in ongoing conversations around race and equity with them, I have experienced what I perceive as cognitive dissonance in critical conversations around these topics and, quite honestly, some unintended microaggressions. Again, the color of my skin does not appear to “fit” with the words I speak or the issues I raise in these conversations. And, again, I find myself in a position of “proving” my “Mexicanness,” my perspective of the marginalized and my worldview of deconstructing the colonizing systems of oppression we see in education and our schools.
And again, I ask, “What do you do when the complexion with which you were born does not seemingly 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?”
I find that I have to reintroduce myself in order to re-enter a conversation I don’t believe I have ever left. Once again, I feel like my skin color tells my story for me, and I am stuck repeating the same narrative. “Well, I know my skin is light, but I actually grew up closely with my Mexican-American family … I’m the first one in my family born with this color skin ... I always felt like I didn’t quite fit in with them because I didn’t look like them …” and so on. While in my head all I can think is, Why wasn’t I born brown? If I were brown, people would take what I have to say on this issue seriously.
In these conversations with colleagues, I frequently hear comments like:
“We need to diversify our staff.”
And I think, Yes, and, have you forgotten that I am here? We are not ALL white!
“We are actively recruiting people who look like our students.”
And I think, Yes, and are you aware of how many of our students are white Latina/os? I know I look like our students because I see them every day.
“We need to hold special meetings for our staff and community members of color.”
And I think, Yes, and why do you look at me strangely when I attend those meetings? I can’t help it my phenotype ended up this way.
Being a white, bilingual, Latina-third-generation Mexican-American in Madison, Wisconsin, makes my participation in race and equity-focused dialogues a very complicated one. My face represents that of white dominance, but my worldview is that of the marginalized. In everything I do, I think about our diverse student population and how our policies, teacher competencies, instructional strategies and materials can be best utilized to improve the educational experience for all of our multicultural, multiracial and multilingual students. Often I am skeptical that I am taken seriously as an advocate for this kind of justice in our schools, simply by virtue of the color of my skin.
I know I am not alone. Across our schools and communities there are many others who also have light skin and whose life experiences and cultural and linguistic backgrounds provide deep insight into the perspectives of the marginalized. We may not “look” like it, but with our unique positionality on the fine line between dominance and marginalization, we have a lot to offer to the conversation. We are also talented anti-bias, multicultural educators.
It is my hope that we continue the process of critical conversations and that, within these conversations, we look in addition to race to apply Dr. King’s principle of considering the content of our character, formed by our life experience and our worldview—through multicultural, multilingual and multiracial lenses—as we work together to provide an equitable education system for all.
Berg is a new educator mentor in Madison, Wisconsin.