Person of Color Column: There is no right way to look like a person of color
For the first 13 years of my life, as I grew up in Fortaleza, Brazil, I never heard the term “white-passing.” No one ever questioned my ethnicity because I “looked white” until I moved to the U.S.
The centuries of immigration and racial integration within the Brazilian community from Asia, Europe, Africa, and other parts of South America have resulted in a blend of races and cultures that form what it means to be Brazilian, according to the Migration Policy Institute. This migration has created an extremely diverse mix of people from many continents, so being Brazilian cannot be limited to one race.
Once I moved to America in 2013, people would either ask me where I was from or say I looked “too white” once I revealed I was Brazilian. They assumed my identity wasn’t as valid as people who looked more stereotypically Brazilian, which proved the complexity of ethnicity and the many forms it comes in.
Both comments always seemed strange to me—to focus on what I look like and to use that as an indicator to determine what country I’m from or what ethnicity I am. Somehow, once I moved countries, my ethnicity and race became a widely discussed topic. Even enrolling in school or taking a standardized test meant I had to disclose that information.
As a mixed Latina woman with dual citizenship in the U.S and Brazil, I feel as though I’ve been living in between cultures—a feeling I never had until I moved to the U.S. I had to find a way to somehow fit into American society while also coming home to a Portuguese-speaking household. The balance of keeping myself true to both sides seems impossible at times, especially when people disregard one side based on my skin color.
During a conversation with classmates in my first semester at Emerson, I revealed my Brazilian heritage and another student, also a non-white person, said to me, “But you look super white.” She may not have realized it, but the view that only people who look like the stereotype can be Brazilian offends those who look different.
Another instance, I had someone say to me and my Brazilian roommate, “I can tell you’re Brazilian, but definitely not her,” disregarding my roommate’s ethnicity due to her light skin and blue eyes. This ignores a large part of Brazil that descends from European immigrants. People seem to feel a need to look at someone and be able to say where they’re from.
The stereotypical Brazilian has dark curly hair and a darker skin tone, but according to the 2010 Brazilian census done by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, 48 percent of the Brazilian population is white and 43 percent is mixed-race. All are still considered Latinx; they just may not look the part to the rest of the world.
Microaggressions like the ones I have experienced make me and other biracial people question what it truly means to be a valid part of a certain culture. I identify most with the side of me that lies within the Latinx community of Brazil, and that should be enough reason as to why I don’t consider myself a white person, despite what others may think of me.
Ever since I moved to America, it seems like I’m either too white or not white enough. But I always seem to be marginalized for both. There is no right way to look “not white.” By definition, white people are from Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa, and the color of one’s skin does not always reflect this. Even though I am a quarter white, I identify as a Latina woman. However, my light skin color seems to be a reason for some people to disregard how I, and many other light-skinned Latinos, identify.
People who are biracial should have the freedom to feel just as connected to their roots as others and to not be afraid to disclose their ethnicity. Diversity doesn’t work unless all aspects and possibilities of it are addressed and understood. I have encountered too many people that aren’t educated enough to understand that a person of color doesn’t always look how they’re “supposed” to look.
People of color with darker skin live through different experiences, and their struggles are just as important. “White-passing” privilege exists, but it should not devalue “white-passing” people of color’s experiences as well.
It’s important that “white-passing” people of color understand the differences and privileges they experience. However, in no way does that justify people believing one’s ethnicity isn’t valid enough because they have a lighter skin tone.
It’s ultimately a matter of education, of learning and paying attention to the world, and realizing that there is no right way of belonging to a certain community and that it’s not all about looking the part.