The Otherness of Ethnicity and Race · Thought Throw Up

The Otherness of Ethnicity and Race: Oblivious Kid In A White World

When I was in elementary school, I was asked by a teacher if I had ever been discriminated against because of my ethnicity. She asked if I had ever been treated differently just because I’m of Mexican descent. That question in itself is a pretty good example of a time when I was treated differently because of my ethnicity. None of the white kids were asked if they’d ever been discriminated against; only us “colored” kids were asked and we had some pretty damn good stories for her.

From left to right: Me, Julio, Cynthia, and Beverly
Four little brown kids from left to right:
Me, Julio, Cynthia, and Beverly

I include myself in that category even though I technically didn’t have something to participate with. I couldn’t recall a time when I’d experienced ethnic discrimination or racism. But I was young and I didn’t know that I wasn’t chosen to read a children’s story book instead of the girl who stumbled over her words because she had translucent skin and was therefore more American than me. I didn’t realize that it wasn’t right when our school district said they wanted to celebrate diversity and grouped every minority child into one group to praise us instead of taking us apart into our respective cultural groups and praising us one by one. I didn’t know that not praising me because of what I accomplish, but because of my ethnic background is also a form of discrimination. For most of my life, I’ve been placed into a group of minority human beings pitted against the white majority.

But I didn’t know that. I never consciously felt that separation, that feeling of “otherness” compared to my white friends. Since I live in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, about 70% of my classmates were Hispanic for my whole life. Our classes were mixed and we were numbers to the school, not ethnicities (which is even worse in my opinion). The white kids were in gangs, the black kids knew Spanish, and the brown kids were called “wexicans” or “White Mexicans.” We thought we were equal in all senses of the word. There was no discrimination. We were harmonious in that sense.

In retrospect, I was treated differently because I’m Mexican-American. When I was in the third grade, my parents felt like we had lost our Mexican identity by growing up in an American city, so they sent us to live in Mexico with our grandparents for a year. I relearned Spanish and I took part in our culture and connected with our family in a way I had never been able to connect before because of the divide that had been created with us living in an entirely different country. It was one of the best years of my life.

Upon my return to Vegas, enrolling into the same elementary school I had attended for kindergarten and the first grade, I was placed in ELL, otherwise known as the program: English Language Learners. I had been in ELL in kindergarten, but they quickly took me out because I was more fluent in English than I was in Spanish. But in the fourth grade I don’t think I even saw my classroom before they took me to the ELL room and made me sit in room full of other kids who spoke Spanish and like one Filipino kid who couldn’t be taught because there was no one fluent in Tagalog. That poor kid.

Anyway, a counselor who recognized me from my previous years at that school pulled me out to catch up on me and my family. (She had basically seen all four of us through elementary school from my oldest sister all the way through me. She knew my parents and she knew our family dynamic. She was and will always be one of the most amazing and positive influences in my life.) After we spoke, she escorted me to my classroom, telling my teacher that I was a new student and that I had just come from ELL. My teacher then pulled me aside and asked in very, very poor Spanish about myself. She was trying to welcome me to her class, but she did all this in Spanish that I could barely understand. So when she finally paused, I said, “You do know that I speak English, right?” And the look of relief on her face kind of made me feel bad for her.

“Thank God,” she had said, “I didn’t know if you were one of those.” “One of those” being kids who don’t speak a word of English and are thrust into these classrooms with teachers who don’t know Spanish, thus limiting communication and instruction. It was rude. I know now that she shouldn’t have said that, but I hadn’t when I was younger because that was just the way things were in my world.

It was just like when they realized that I was way too advanced for ELL, testing me out of the program, then a few weeks later testing me to get into the GATE program (GATE was an elementary school program that stood for “Gifted And Talented Education” where we supposedly learned at a faster pace and explored topics we would never learn about in our regular classrooms but where in actuality, we messed around with art supplies and blow up planetariums in the school’s multi-purpose room).

And it was just like when that same teacher asked me later in the year if I had ever been discriminated against because of my Mexican descent. The answer is yes, I have been treated differently because my skin is brown and my features are Mexican. Sometimes it bothers me, sometimes it doesn’t like when people ask for my name and I tell them it’s Dianne, which sort of throws them off. I especially like it when they go off their rocker when my sister, who looks very similar to me, tells them her name is Cynthia and my other sister’s name is Beverly. And it’s even funnier when they see my brother and they assume his name will be something just as white, which it was for about ten minutes when my mother named him Richard and my dad had the birth certificate changed at the last second, then he tells him his name is Julio and they don’t know how to react. But sometimes it does suck.

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