Situationally White and Occasionally Other
I have written in my bio that I’m a Mexican American/WASP which is a lazy description of my background but it’s three words where I don’t have space for fifty. The Mexican is the important word for this story. I grew up with a Spanish last name and a tan in California. This means people asked if I spoke English. For the record, I don’t speak Spanish. I got shifty eyes from mall security, probably lost jobs before I even had a chance to interview, got beat-up by white kids at my mostly white middle school and accused of cheating by my English teacher. All the usual bullshit. I grew up always looking over my shoulder and assuming the worst of people because they assumed the worst about me.
In 2005, on a manic whim, I moved to New Zealand for graduate school. I quickly picked up four flatmates to cover the rent in a half rotted, hundred-year-old, Sandringham house that is probably now worth three million. There was another American from New York, a guy from India, and two New Zealanders. One from the South Island and one from South Auckland which is about the same as the energy difference between California and New York.
New Zealand likes to put itself forward as a racially happy and peaceful country. It’s not but it’s a hell of a lot better than many. A few months into my time there there was something on the news about the Police butting heads with some Northland Iwi. I took a deep breath and started on a nice long rant about the oppression of my brown brothers by the White Man when my very, very white, South Island flatmate put a hand on my shoulder, smiled at me and said “Sweetie, we don’t have Mexicans here. You’re white now.”
There is not a gif or emoji in existence that can possibly convey the face I made in that moment. Maybe this one is close. 0.o
I had been working in the theatre for years, shunning the daylight, so had gone fairly pail. I don’t look Maori or Pacific Islander or Indian or Middle Eastern. My look is somewhat ethnically generic, which according to my ginger Cantabrian flatmate meant I defaulted to white. Hispanic wasn’t listed on any form I’d filled out since getting there. I’d been ticking Other. I was now Other, and in my strange case Other meant White.
A little while later I walked into a store that sold expensive things, just to look. The lady there tried to sell me stuff. I smiled and waved at some cops, just to see what would happen. They smiled and waved back. When I hit a point of being so broke I couldn’t afford a $1.50 can of chicken at the corner store the lady let me have the chicken and just trusted that I would pay her back. Things didn’t magically become perfect but they did become just a little bit easier.
Jump forward a few years and I’m heading back to the states for the first time in a while and bringing my pakeha New Zealander partner with me. New Zealand is not a large country. You can walk from coast to coast at its thinnest bit and drive top to bottom in a few days. Less if you didn’t need to take a boat between the islands. There’s even a movie about it. As a result, way too many of them, including the one I hooked up with, have this romantic idea of the Great American Road trip. Days and days of driving. Outside of Yellowstone I was sitting in the little breakfast area of our motel, holding a styrofoam coffee cup, and I noticed that I had gotten a tan. I had been working mostly nights in a windowless room for multiple years and covering myself in sunscreen every day, because it only takes one really good burn to learn that New Zealand had no ozone layer worth speaking of, and half Mexican provides nowhere near enough melanin for protection. I had gotten really white. Two weeks in the states without sunscreen and I’d turned brown again.
I glanced up at the TV on the wall. It was Fox News, Obama vs. McCain. Remember how ugly that was? Remember when we thought it couldn’t get worse than that? There were two other people in that breakfast area, their eyes absolutely glued to the TV and nodding at the things that were being said, and I had a sudden and very nasty realization that I wasn’t white anymore. Not compared to the couple in that breakfast nook.
The first thing I did was take my then long hair out of its braids. I spent six hellish weeks living in Texas and was told by my co-worker not to braid my hair because it made it look like I was fresh over the border. It was amazing how fast all that old fear came back.
A few weeks after this last election my sister was on a bus in San Francisco and a strange, aggressive man told her to go back where she came from. Now here is where the complicated family history comes in. We are where we came from. We have a Spanish last name, which we picked up from one of the first Spanish men ever to set foot in California. We were in California when Missionaries were still crawling up the coast. We were there when it was part of Spain. We were there when it was part of Mexico. We were there for the Bear Flag revolt and when gold was found. And we were there when the US Army marched in. My family didn’t come to America. America came to us. Going back where we came from means catching the BART train to Oakland. I don’t think that explanation would have gone down with the guy on the bus. My father, who doesn’t speak a word of Spanish, has never been to Mexico, and was born in Modesto has taken to carrying around his passport. And that’s not paranoia. An immigration officer asked for his papers back in the 90’s while he was walking out of Starbucks. He answered no hablo espanol then threatened to sue the officer. Those were easier times.
And in a few days, I will be going back. And I am scared. It wouldn’t be so bad if we were just heading back to California but we are going there to see the eclipse and somehow decided on Wyoming as our viewing location. I went through Wyoming before, and people seemed nice, Midwest manners and all that, but that was many years ago now when things were different.
My partner is very white and tall and manly looking. My daughter caught all my recessive genetics and has blond hair, blue eyes, and skin that burns in moonlight. Me, on the other hand, my hair is still brown, my eyes are still brown, and I spend enough time outside at the park that my skin is brown as well. I speak more Te Reo Maori than Spanish (mostly fish and colors). I probably look more like my daughter’s nanny than her mom. Though I’ve been told nannies don’t yell as much as I do.
Maybe I’m just being paranoid. Maybe everything will be fine. Maybe my only worry should be that I’m about to go on a massive road trip with a very active four-year-old who has never driven more than a couple hours at a time in her life. I’m going to try to document the experience. Turn this into a travel blog for six weeks. Travels with Man and Child. Review a dozen different Denney’s along the way.
New Zealand is far from perfect on the racial harmony front, but right now I feel safer in an Auckland suburb than I do in the country that birthed me, and that is seriously wrong.