“You’re Lucky You Don’t Look Hispanic.”
I was seated across from the vice principal of my high school, staring at him, mouth probably slightly agape, as he signed off on the paperwork I’d need to take more Advanced Placement classes than was typically permitted for students.
An off-hand comment. A casual gesture to include my entire body, to indicate that my pale-skinned, blonde-haired self would never be mistaken for Hispanic once seen in person, and that I was fortunate for that to be the case.
At fourteen, my privilege was invisible to me.
I’d noticed, of course, the fact that there were no shades darker than pale beige in my advanced academic courses. My club swim team could best be described as “pink,” with the odd fake-tan thrown in. My homeroom, which was assigned by last name rather than by academic merit, was the almost the only time I had contact with anyone who wasn’t very, very white. All our teachers (bar our Spanish teachers, of course) were white.
I knew I was white, I knew all my classmates, friends and peers where white. But I didn’t think about it — it was just a given. I had not yet realized how my name allowed me subvert expectations.
That being said, it wasn’t the first time I’d noticed that my name had caused confusion. Substitute teachers often looked over my outstretched hand at roll call, unable to believe that this white girl had a last name like Ruiz.
Teachers which had known me for years still had trouble pronouncing my non-white first name, and frequently asked if they could shorten it, or call me by a nickname. It annoyed me that they went to the trouble of pronouncing Kosloski, or Staskevicius, often asking the student if they were saying it correctly, whereas my name was acceptable to mispronounce with no apology.
When we brought in food for World Heritage Day, people were surprised when I brought in a paella instead of nachos or tacos, and a little disappointed. “Where’s your Mexican food?” one girl said in tones of dismay.
But I never really connected the dots, because I’d always placed myself in the “white” camp. They were irregular, infrequent coincidences that were minor blips on my radar. I did not think about race, because I was the default.
I was uncomfortable about admitting my obvious advantage.
When our vice principal told me how lucky I was, lucky that with a last name like Ruiz which he instantly recognized as Hispanic, that I did not have thick brown hair, darker brown skin, I was shocked that he’d admitted it.
It was something I’d always secretly felt: that I was lucky to speak Spanish and have family overseas, but still pass as indubitably white. I knew it was true, deep down. But I’d never heard it said aloud. This was the first time I’d listened to someone say, with no compunctions, that I gained an advantage for appearing white.
What he’d put his finger on, with no hesitation whatsoever, was that my skin color gave me an advantage. And to be honest, that made me uncomfortable.
And it made me think.
My parents often encouraged me to tick the Hispanic box on any standardised tests or school forms. I am Hispanic, after all. My dad is Spanish. It felt a little disingenuous — I didn’t really identify as Hispanic, I’d never been discriminated as a result of my Spanish heritage, which is what I assumed the boxes were there to correct for.
But in the end, I wanted to show colleges that I was academically fantastic in spite of the difficulties I’d allow them to assume I’d faced — I was in the top 5% of my class and Hispanic. I ticked the box.
My subconscious bias followed me here.
Even when I was decided to start writing on this platform, my choice to write under a pen-name was two-fold. First, I preferred to write anonymously.
But second? I’d always planned on writing under a pen-name, even back when I was ten years old and planning my fantasy best-seller, because I suspected more people would pick up my book if it sounded like it was written by a white woman, not a Hispanic one. I might not have known it as clearly as that, but the feeling was there.
At the naive age of ten, I already recognized that white experiences are portrayed as universal. Non-white experiences as seen as niche, of interest only to the people who belong to that group. Even when I was young, I looked around my local bookstore and noticed all the names sounded white. I wanted to be published, so at that moment I decided to be a writer, I decided to be one who could be perceived as white by name alone.
I realized I’d been eager to shed my heritage.
Whenever I thought about marrying someone, I never once doubted I’d take my future spouse’s surname. I realized I’d been eager to lose “Ruiz” as a surname — eager to drop the last vestige of anything that would allow others to mistake me as non-white. Subconsciously, I knew my last name presented me with disadvantages which went away when I was seen in person and read as white. Why not skip that first step altogether?
I was relishing that secret feeling, when I’d meet someone for the first time who’d seen my name — whether a teacher or a prospective employer — and read that surprise in their eyes as a white girl materialized where they’d been expecting someone Hispanic.
This feeling went away when I moved to England, where people were far more likely to meet a Spanish-Hispanic person (read: white) than a Latin-American Hispanic person with a last name like Ruiz. I grew used to not having to explain to people why I was white. Folks just assumed I was Spanish, not Mexican, unlike in my high school where Mexican was the only possible nationality for someone with my last name.
I think it’s likely I skipped a lot of the probable job discrimination as a result.
Latinx women especially are typically perceived to be over-emotional, hysterical, uninterested in furthering their education, sexually promiscuous, and bossy. It’s an insidious collection of stereotypes — it allows the (white) observer to pin all shortcomings on a person’s race, rather than any systematic oppression.
And I neatly sidestepped them all with the grace and ease that comes from years of unburdened privilege.
I still experienced a very small portion of bias.
People stared at me frequently when they met me and I introduced myself. Occasionally they would ask me where I was from, taking the first step in the but-where-are-you-REALLY-from dance that starts when someone thinks your skin doesn’t match your name, and thinks they’re entitled to know why.
Folks have told me the only reason I was accepted to colleges or permitted into certain classes was because of affirmative action. (And who knows, maybe they were right.)
Teachers would frequently pass over me in class when letting people answer questions, because my first name is tough to pronounce, and it’d be easier for them to call Sally or John up to the board.
But all that was incredibly minor compared to the discrimination and anti-Hispanic bias that was so prevalent and ubiquitous that the vice principal of my school had no qualms brazenly saying it aloud.
You know what? At the end of the day, he was right, he was just secure enough to say it. I am incredibly fortunate that most people read me as white, granting me access to the kinds of circles non-white people struggle much more to access. I think if I’d had darker skin, darker hair, I would have struggled more.
A window into a different world.
In my second year of high school, I took an Advanced Placement Spanish course. It made sense, because I was fluent in Spanish. Most of the other students were what I started to think of as truly Hispanic, that is, Latinx rather than Spanish.
The class started out mostly Hispanic, but within two weeks every single white person (other than me) dropped out. I honestly believe that one of the reasons is because we white people are uncomfortable being the inferior minorities.
In a class where being Hispanic was celebrated and encouraged, where they struggled to fit in, struggled to excel with none of the usual advantages, surrounded by brown-skinned people who were naturally talented at Spanish — it was hard and unusual for them. So they dropped.
For me, it was my first taste of not being ashamed of my last name in high school. It was the first time both my names were correctly pronounced, with no errors or hiccups. It was the first time I’d been friends with people who spoke Spanish (other than family), who knew the same traditions, rhyming songs, food traditions, of course with some differences. My Spanish started to pick up the Latin-American tells, the ustedes instead of vosotros, carros instead of coches.
I hadn’t realized how narrow my world had been.
Now, a bit older and a bit wiser, I’m much clearer on the advantages my skin color gives me. How could I not be? With the media declaiming Mexicans as drug-lord rapists, dirty lazy immigrants who contribute nothing to society, with a President who openly and blatantly mongered racial rage on behalf of all the white people who feel they’ve been displaced?
Growing up white in the South with a Spanish name gave me a unique set of experiences. I can understand the flavor of some of the discrimination people with names like mine face, while being shielded from the worst of it by my blatant whiteness.
I’m grateful to the vice principal who was so unashamed of his racism, of the racism I was bypassing by being white, that he felt comfortable enough to call it out, to comment on it casually in a conversational manner. It was the first time I’d confronted my obvious advantages, and it opened my eyes for later experiences.
It’s still a balm to my ears when my name is pronounced correctly on the first try. I still angrily overreact when people say I should like spicy food because I’m Hispanic. I still fight whenever anyone insinuates any of my accolades are due to my last name rather than just me being excellent. There’s still a thread of shame in me, that wants me to change my very name so that I won’t be perceived as anything but white.
I grew up in the South with the kind of name that would have closed doors to me, but armed with the kind of skin that opened them right back up. That gave me a glance at the gatekeepers I don’t think I could have seen otherwise, as they frantically changed hands trying to determine who and what I was. It left its mark on me even today, six years out of Georgia.
It showed me my own bias, taught me that I was not color-blind as I’d always believed. And it’s made me, I hope, more likely to open the door to people who were closed out.