Whenever I introduce myself to someone new, the first thing that typically comes up is my background. Sometimes it’s because they notice my name and remark on it sounding unusual (Irina, which is obviously Slavic, and Gonzalez, which is obviously Hispanic), and sometimes it’s because I let it slip that I’m not exactly American despite having no accent, and sometimes it’s because we are sharing stories about where we’re from.
One way or another, it comes up: I am half-Russian and half-Cuban. And, as I often joke now, I am also all-American.
The one thing that doesn’t often come up in these conversations is my race. And up until recently, I was never sure whether that’s because people are uncomfortable talking about race, because my ethnic and cultural background is more relevant, or whether it’s because it’s obvious that I am white… or am I not white? I was honestly never sure.
The only thing I truly knew about my racial background, as opposed to my cultural and ethnic background, is that my family is almost entirely from either Russia or Cuba for several generations. On my Russian mother’s side, there were stories of a relative who was Jewish and another who was an indigenous person from Siberia. Meanwhile, on my father’s side, relatives were almost all from Spain and possibly the Dominican Republic.
I never understood what any of this meant about my race, though. Growing up, my family immigrated to the U.S. when I was 8 years old. I identified as an immigrant and always, whenever asked, said that I was from Cuba and Russia. Eventually, after we received our American citizenship, I identified as American too… but my Russian and Cuban sides never disappeared. Whenever I had to check off forms in school, I always made sure to check the “Hispanic” box because that’s what I thought I should do since my last name is Gonzalez. And although my dad always saw himself as white, the way many “white-passing” Cubans do, I always explained how I would check the “other” box whenever I talked to friends, acquaintances, or strangers.
Because I was labeled an “other” person from an early age, I always assumed that this meant I wasn’t white. I didn’t really know what I was, but I didn’t believe my dad when he said that the world of race was divided between black and white. Weren’t Latinos somewhere in the middle?
I never really considered myself white because white, to me, had always meant people who were in the mainstream, like White Anglo-Saxon Americans. My definition of “white” didn’t include immigrants, people who spoke three languages like I do, or those who were born in another country or who had a Hispanic background. Isn’t that why there was another box to check in the first place? But the truth is, as I began to learn more about Latinos, I came to realize that being Latina doesn’t necessarily mean that I am “not white” — and that, in fact, I am what some in the community refer to as a “white-presenting” Latina.
The first time I came face-to-face with the trouble of my whiteness was during a discussion on Facebook. A friend of a friend yelled at me for being a “white-presenting” Latina. She poked fun at my whiteness, saying over and over that I was not allowed to have an opinion because my hardships were not as difficult as hers. And although at the time I scoffed at her assumption (after all, how could SHE truly know what I have been through?), a part of it got through: Was my life easier because I am a white Latina?
There’s no argument that, if you are a person of color, you likely have experienced more difficulty in life. I don’t have to go into the statistics of how you are probably making less money, have higher chances of being arrested by the police, and, as we’ve now seen over and over, might even been shot for carrying something that doesn’t even remotely resemble a gun.
Meanwhile, despite being identified as “other” by my white and non-white peers my entire life, I can’t deny the fact that I am maybe not that much of an other. I’m not sure if it’s my half-Russian background or the fact that my Cuban father comes from a predominantly white family, but I look white. And I’ve had a relatively easy life, too, so I have to wonder: Is that because I spent most of it studying hard, working hard, and never taking a break, or because I appear white to most people? Despite my last name giving me away every time, it’s very possible that I’ve still mostly profited from being “white-presenting.”
When I actually decided to look into my genetics, my whiteness was basically confirmed: 38% Eastern European, 26% Great Britain, 10% Europe South, 5% Native American, 5% European Jewish, 3% Middle East, 3% Scandinavia, 3% Africa North, 2% Iberian Peninsula, 1% Finland/Northwest Russia, 1% of each: Asia Central, Europe West, Africa South-Central Hunter-Gatherers, and Asia East.
My Ancestry.com profile also confirmed that my background included people who migrated from Southern Europe and the Iberian Peninsula to Cuba or Venezuela (obviously Cuba, in my case). So, without realizing it, I had spent most of my life feeling like an outsider with both my white friends, who didn’t have ethnic-sounding last names, and Latinx friends, who had darker skin than I do. And now that I know this, it has begun to make me feel guilty for my whiteness, for identifying as Latina even when I can “pass” for being white. But just because I can pass, does it mean I should?
The truth is, no matter what a DNA profile says of me or how others see me, I have always seen myself as being exactly who I described in the beginning: half-Cuban and half0Russian. As a little girl, the math seemed so simple. My mother is Russian and my father is Cuban. What else is there to know?
But race, ethnicity, and cultural background are a lot more complicated than simply who our parents are. They’re also a lot more complicated than what a DNA test might reflect or checking a box on some official government form. So am I white? Am I Latina? Am I both?
The thing is, I can’t really separate my whiteness from my Latinidad. Despite what conventional thinking might have us believe, there are white Latinxs out there just the same as there are Afro-Latinxs out there, and basically every color in between. Instead of feeling guilty for my whiteness and apologizing for being born the way I was, the only smart thing I can do now is to acknowledge the privileges I have received for appearing, at least in part, as predominantly white — and use that privilege to raise the voices of Latinx peoples who maybe haven’t been quite so lucky.