COMPLEXion: The Story of my White Skin
I am an actress. I am a singer. I am a woman of color. Although some people may not consider me a person of color because of my proximity to whiteness: the fair color of my skin, the way in which I speak, my Eurocentric features. They have afforded me some privilege throughout my life, but it is only now in 2020 in the midst of a movement, that I am able to talk about the harsh realities behind that privilege.
In public, my family and I have always been mistaken for anything other than what we are: Mexican American. In our home, my parents always made it clear that we were not white. We were brown. I grew up hearing about the racism and prejudice that other members of my family experienced. Cautionary tales about white people and their views on brown people.
I was pretty young when I started experiencing racism firsthand. It came from white people who would speak to me as though they were with “one of their own”. Freely sharing their internalized racism and prejudice because my skin was the same color as theirs. What they didn’t realize was that they were actually in the presence of a brown person. Or on the flip side, sometimes when I was around my own people, they would switch from English to Spanish to share their real thoughts with each other about me. They did not assume that I was one of them. They assumed I was a white girl. I could understand every single word.
Recently I was having a conversation with someone who I’ve always admired as a person of color in our industry. They said to me, “I don’t know if I can take up space as a person of color anymore, because I’m white. The color of my skin is white.” My knee jerk reaction was: “WTF their skin is way darker than mine! If they considered themselves to be white, should I also reconsider that I was also white?”
The nickname my grandmother gave me when I was a little girl echoed in my mind louder than ever before: “osita blanca”. Her “little white bear.” It was a wake up call to me. I could no longer ignore my proximity to whiteness. It had been there all of my life, and now I had no choice but to join the conversation and face it head on. How should I take up space in this industry? In the world? In myself?
I was the guest vocalist for a composer in the musical theater community. We were backstage in the green room chatting, getting to know each other, and the subject of nationality came up:
“Where is your family from?”
“We are Mexican.”
“Oh well you’re half Mexican, right?
“Nope, I’m 100% Mexican on both sides of my family.”
“Wow! I never would have guessed you were Mexican.”
“Well you don’t have any hair growing out of your chin!”
I still feel the sting of that backhanded compliment. And it wasn’t a compliment. It was racist.
I was in development for a new musical. New producers, investors, and creatives came on board. I had to re-audition. After my audition, I was told… “You’re still in the running, but we are also looking at women of color for the role.” I was a woman of color! Just not the color that would be a good marketing point. If I had on my resume: In the Heights, Hamilton, or West Side Story, would I then be considered a person of color?
I recognize that because of my racial ambiguity I have experienced privilege. I have knowingly and unknowingly “passed” as white in casting rooms. I am now faced with looking at colorism and the insidious effects of it.
In light of the WE SEE YOU movement, I continue to dig deeper and ask myself….. How do I accept the whiteness of my skin, and the complicated privilege it has given me, without erasing my identity as a Latinx woman? I don’t have all the answers. I do know that I can never walk into a room without considering, “ Am I here because of the lightness of my skin?”
I will continue to talk about the nuance of all the things I am learning and discovering. I will continue to shed light on the complexities of colorism. I will get it wrong. You will get it wrong. We need to normalize the fact that we are all going to make mistakes as we forge into this uncharted territory.
This work is raw and uncomfortable and that is OK. But let’s try to get it right. Together.