I would like to extend a sincere thank you to the Occidental student who first made me feel white.
Thank you for a moment you may not even remember. We were sitting in class, having a group discussion about our individual experiences with marginalized racial identity, and directly after I spoke you pointed out to the class a privilege of mine which I previously attempted to ignore: that I am a biracial woman who is white passing. I benefit from aspects of white privilege — not all, but some, and it is imperative for me to address that. Because of your bold willingness to hold me accountable, I have embarked on a critical exploration of what it means to be a white-passing woman who ardently identifies with my not-so-white-passing heritage.
I am half Chamorro and half white and this puts me in a particularly liminal position. I am a member of a marginalized and underrepresented community, but I do not look like I am. My lack of phenotypic authenticity inspires me to explore what it means to be a person of color in a world that does not see me as one.
The problem I always come across is one within the current campus discourse: The ambiguity of my appearance means that I have no grounds for authority over my own complex identity. It is valid for the current discourse to hold me accountable for my privileges, but it is not acceptable for my cultural identity to be questioned. Our campus must diversify our discussion of race in order to include those of us who may not look like we belong in the discussion, but do.
I exist in a space of constant questions. “Why is your skin not darker?” “Why do you not speak Chamorro?” “Why do you look white?” And my personal favorite: “Why do you care so much? You’re only half.”
I can see how these questions may seem innocent or as an attempt to hold me accountable for my ability to pass. But I assure you that these questions force me to constantly assert my right to my own heritage. I am not “only half,” I am whole. I often try to answer these inquiries with a smile, a calm voice and simple words. My mother taught me to be patient. But the thoughts raging through my head are loud, strong and valid.
The reason my skin isn’t darker is because my mother is of lighter complexion — and because I’m half white. I don’t speak my language because it’s dying — and my mother didn’t see the value of teaching her children a language that is often characterized as useless, weird and different. I look white because people don’t know what a half-Chamorro, half-white woman is supposed to look like.
You can see my mother’s side in my arbitrary smattering of freckles — which all the women in my family have. It’s in my wide lips — the ones for which I was ridiculed as a kid. My natural brown-almost-black, thick, coarse hair is another hint of my mother and my people in me.
Although I have some physical indicators of my heritage, it baffles me that I have to pinpoint these characteristics in order to claim my authenticity as a biracial Chamorro woman. The discourse surrounding race should not leave out those whose appearances do not reflect conventional (read: antiquated) standards of categorization. I fully recognize that shade of skin color is among the most obvious features that define an individual’s identity. But I also don’t believe that “looking like” a person of color is strictly limited to melanin levels. I see the physical manifestations of someone’s underrepresented racial identity in the confidence of their stride, the pride in their face, in their unique pattern of speech.
My authenticity as a Chamorro woman may not be blatantly apparent in my physical appearance, but it thrives within the woman I am today. It lies in my insatiable cravings for kadu and my unquenchable love for kelaguen. It is found within the loud and proud and endlessly loving individuals I have the onra (honor) to call my family. It is in my permanent identity as neni (baby), even though I’m a 20-year-old woman and my mom really needs to let that one go. My authenticity permeates from my fundamental and unwavering strength as a woman, which matrilineal Chamorro culture instilled in me throughout my life. Yet, regardless of how I define my authenticity, the discussion always whittles down to this: the dilemma of being half white and half Chamorro is that I am at once not brown enough while at the same time not white enough to claim membership to either group.
I implore the students of Occidental to broaden our campus-wide discussion of race to include mixed-race and white-passing individuals. If the goal is to promote inclusion and equity, it does not follow to exclude or shame an individual because of physical appearance. While it is critical for me as a white-passing woman to recognize the privileges from which I benefit, this does not mean that I, and those like me, should be excluded from our campus’ discussion of race and equity. Racial identity runs deeper than skin color. It is woven into every conscious and unconscious aspect of life and deserves merit, respect and dignity, regardless of its physical expression.
Kelsey Martin is a sophomore sociology major. She can be reached at email@example.com.