Drawing of multiple apples, in varying shades of grey to indicate different kindsBy Elias Baez

Volume XXXV, Issue 2, March 8, 2013

I am 100% Puerto Rican. By that, I mean that my father immigrated here from “the Island” when he was five, and my mother’s parents also came directly from Puerto Rico. Both of my parents’ families settled in New York City. Unlike most, I can define my ethnic identity with certitude and without thousandth-place percent distinctions. Despite this, I have stupidly complex ethnic identity issues. I blame the phrase, “But, like, you’re essentially white.” To clarify, that phrase has never been used to refer to the fact that my skin is pretty light; it is an attempt at stating that I am culturally “white,” which is probably the most racially problematic issue I’ve encountered at Amherst or otherwise.

I only realized how much of a problem that phrase was when I started to respond affirmatively. Culturally, my family is definitively Puerto Rican. The name of every dinner we make begins with “arroz con,” and the smell of Christmas is not hot cocoa but pasteles just unwrapped from their banana leaves. Our baby showers are tetragenerational parties in the back rooms of bodegas. Because my family has always identified very strongly with being Puerto Rican, my own self-identity has always been linked to my ethnic identity. When I found myself rejecting my lifelong ethnic identification in favor of being “essentially white,” I went through a fairly massive identity crisis. But I’ve worked through it, and I think the perspective is worth sharing.

To understand what it was that made me different from the rest of my family, I had to first define what made me “essentially white.” This turned out to be pretty difficult, because I have no idea what constitutes being “white.” It’s certainly not just skin tone: My mother is much lighter than me but has never encountered this issue. Additionally, “whiteness” as a whole is different from its components. If someone told me I was “essentially French,” I’d understand what they meant—same with any other nationality or ethnicity that “whiteness” comprises. But it can’t be said that I behave like someone of European descent without actually defining what that behavior is, and I hesitate to to enter the land of stereotype. So, without a specific aspect of whiteness to relate to, I had no choice but to work backwards. Maybe I could find some aspect of myself that was definitively “white” by deconstructing my identity enough to understand the individual components of it—which were white, which were not, and so on.

This was easier than expected because my public identity is pretty simple. I’m an English major. I don’t really do anything on campus besides go to class, go to Gad’s, and experiment with theater stuff. Personality-wise, I’m pretty average too: I’m funny in a weird way, empathetic, and generally affable. None of this is white, and none of this is Puerto Rican. It’s just normal stuff. This seems like another dead end, but the apparent averageness of my persona is the key to understanding just why people were so comfortable telling me I was white in spite of my background.

The first time somebody told me I was “essentially white” was in my senior year of high school. My high school was very backwards, and after I got into Amherst a bunch of my classmates openly remarked that my ethnicity helped me get in. Whether or not this is true is irrelevant—what matters is the logical leap a friend eventually made: “you’re not really ‘diversity’ though, ‘cause you’re essentially white.” She said it very matter-of-factly as well, as if I would be objectively wrong for disagreeing with the sentiment. I believe she felt this way for two reasons: (1) affirmative action has warped the perception of race in relation to diversity as its own concept, and (2) I am a pretty relatable person.

The errant conflation of affirmative action and conscious diversity has resulted in the widespread misconception that socioeconomic disadvantage and race are so thoroughly linked that to be truly Latino (or “count as ‘diversity’”) you have to be poor. It also implies that the middle class is inherently white—that in ascending from disadvantage to a place of stability, a certain “whitewashing” occurs. I am still Puerto Rican despite the fact that I come from a middle class family. I bring a wealth of culture and customs to Amherst, despite the fact that I do not actively engage with La Causa or other on-campus groups related to race and culture. Ethnicity exists independent of socioeconomic status; there are the obvious disparities in advantage that affirmative action attempts to correct, but it is truly wrong to associate the middle class exclusively with whiteness. That reinforces a paradigm that tends to stifle success in identity-confused cases like mine.

Race is constructed from ethnicity by feelings of sameness, things shared – safety. I have spent my entire life surrounded by white people, and feel these things around them despite my self-identification as Puerto Rican. The comfort one feels when racial tensions are lowered is often only found in groups of same-race friends, so my own easiness in all-white groups tends to lend itself to the notion that I am “essentially white.” Said with a smile, this phrase is not as awful as it once was, but it still irks me. First, it is a rejection of my preferred self-identification, which isn’t kosher. Second, it fails to recognize a feature of diversity that I really value: the highlighting of similarities over differences.

The diversity at Amherst has most impacted me in the form of my friendship with the beautiful Melih Levi ’15. Many of the best conversations I’ve had about Balzac, Tolstoy, Nabokov, and other literary greats have been with a kid my age from Turkey. Turkey! I never expected to feel such a connection at the level of literature with somebody so culturally different from me. Diversity finds its footing here: We need to focus less on the differences between cultures and more on the universality of human sentiment that we can discover in others entirely without regard for race or background. Identity-redefining phrases like “essentially white” are poor attempts at verbalizing a recognition of the notion that, on a personal (though not yet societal) level, we really can exist in a state beyond racial and ethnic boundaries.