My life as a White Hispanic: Prejudice comes from all sides

20 Jul
Multiracial women

What do I have in common with Selena Gomez, Jessica Alba and Raquel Welch? It’s not fame, fortune or incredible beauty. All of us are half white and half Latina.

My name is Kimberly Helminski Keller, and I am a Latina.

My Polish surname hides the reality that the other half of my DNA is Puerto Rican, a genetic mix of Spanish, African and Taino Indian. As a child, I described my multi-racial heritage as  “Puertolack,” a hybrid of Puerto Rican and Polack.

We lived in Buffalo, New York in a neighborhood where most families were Polish, Italian or a combination of both. My father’s family had been in Buffalo for generations. They were among the original Poles who came to the U.S. in hopes of making a good living working on the railroad. My father met my mother while he stationed at an Army base in New Jersey. Her family came to the mainland in 1929 to escape Puerto Rico’s poverty. She was a definite contrast to the girls back home with her tan skin, dark brown eyes and dark, curly hair.

Childhood can be confusing when you’re the only white kid in a tan family

Life in Buffalo was confusing to me. When I was with my dad, no one looked twice at me. I was just another little brown-eyed girl with golden hair. However, the looks changed when my mother and brother were around. My mother was an absolute Latina beauty, and my brother inherited her tan skin and curls. They got stares from strangers. Some of our neighbors looked down their noses at them. A few parents told their children not to play at the “dirty spic” house. My own Polish grandparents, while never overtly prejudiced, were emotionally distant with us, but they lavished attention on our literal fair-haired cousin. I was too young to understand what was happening, but all the signs told my young mind that there was something wrong with me and the people I loved most.

I found solace and identity with my mother’s family, especially after my parents’ divorce. My grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins loved us unconditionally. You couldn’t enter a room without my grandmother or aunts plastering your face with kisses. My cousins would tease me about being the whitest kid in the family and told me chocolate milk would make my skin turn brown. I drank a lot of it because I desperately wanted to be like them. Both my grandmother and mother cooked amazing Puerto Rican foods such as arroz con gandules (rice and beans), papas rejellenas (stuffed potatoes) and fried amarillos (ripe plantains). I was exposed to great Latino music and dancing, but woefully, my dance skills were better suited for Polish polkas. My grandmother rarely spoke Spanish in the house, but I picked up quite a few colorful words when she’d get angry with my uncles. My only sadness came from when we were around other Puerto Ricans in the community. People stared at me when I was outside. I knew enough Spanish to understand the muffled conversations about “the white girl.” They laughed when I called my grandmother, “Abuela.”

Blessings and challenges as an adult

My life today as a multi-racial adult has its blessings and its challenges. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to be a part of two very different cultures. Thanks to my mixed genes, my skin doesn’t show age as it does on my Caucasian friends. My hair is somewhat manageable during the summer heat; whereas, my mom, aunts and cousins rely on various straighteners to tone down frizz. I also have the ability to see life from both a white and Latina perspective.

Still, society wants to put me in an easily definable box based on the color of my skin. People get angry when I make my own box. I identify myself as Latina because my greatest influences in life came from that part of my heritage.

Seeing only the color of my skin

While in college, I tried to participate in a discussion about growing up in a multi-racial family. A group of girls were sitting in the dorm’s common area and talking about how it was to have parents of different races and ethnicities. I introduced myself to the lead girl and told her that I was Latina and white.

“Kim Helminski? That’s not Latina! That’s the whitest name I’ve ever heard,” she said. “You’re a white girl. You don’t belong here.”

I looked around the room. No one said a word.

“I am Puerto Rican,” I said again. “My dad was Polish, and my mom’s family came directly from the island.”

The girl straightened up and looked at me. “You’re not Puerto Rican. You’re white.”

I was ready to walk away, but I asked one more question, “How do you think a Puerto Rican should be?”

The other girls began to talk. Dark skin. Curly hair. Speak Spanish. Go to a barrio school. Move your hips. Be discriminated against.

Based on their erroneous criteria, I could not be in the discussion. I missed five of their six identifiers; however, they were dreadfully wrong about my discrimination experience. I’ve faced it on both sides, and I was facing it from them.

When multi-racial leads to multi-rejection

Being multi-racial means embracing all sides of your heritage, but unfortunately, the sides don’t always embrace you back. When I look “white,” I can blend in with the white community. But if I allow myself to tan in the summer, I’m not as welcome. I can speak Spanish, cook traditional foods and talk about shared cultural experiences, but other Latinos often acknowledge me with a patronizing grin.

I’ve met a few other people who are multi-racial. Most live their lives in the culture that best matches their physical features. It’s easier to blend in than to stand out. I straddle the fence. I want to be part of both cultures, but I know that in reality, I am a culture unto myself. My self-culture isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s the best illustration of how the American melting pot should work.

As a mother, I want my children to appreciate their multi-racial heritage. My daughter has red hair, freckles and porcelain skin. My son has blonde hair and olive skin. The world does not see the diversity that runs through their veins. They see two very white kids.  When my children were preschoolers, we took a trip to the local Mexican bakery with my mother. They were excited about all the pastries and began to chant, “Abuela! Abuela!” whenever they saw something that looked especially delicious. All eyes turned to them, and the snickering and murmuring began. My mother got angry. “These are my grandchildren,” she sternly said. She made a quick purchase, and we left the store.

Multi-racial: It’s trendy, controversial and really difficult to describe

Recent headlines make being multi-racial trendy – and controversial.  Several public figures have been more open about their diverse heritage: Apple CEO Steve Jobs (German and Syrian), President Obama (Mixed European and Kenyan) and Senator Ted Cruz (Cuban, Irish and Italian) are just a few examples. Advertisers are also being more open. Breakfast favorite Cheerios recently got a barrage of complaints over a commercial featuring a multi-racial family; however, according to figures from the 2010 census, the ad reflects reality for more than 9 million mixed race Americans.

Latino (or Hispanic) does not meet the technical definition of a race and is viewed only as an ethic group. Currently the U.S. Census only recognizes only white, black, American Indian or Alaskan Native, and Asian as “races.” Hispanics and other minority communities such as North Africans, Middle Easterners and Arabs are viewed as ethnic groups and have to identify with one of the recognized races. The system forces the creation of ridiculous and offensive categories such as “white Hispanic.”

What racial/ethnic identity  matters most?

The term “white Hispanic” can certainly be used to describe me, although many, like the girls from my old dorm, would argue that I don’t meet the criteria for Hispanic ethnicity. If you look at the big picture, neither “white” nor “Hispanic” really define my true identity.

My Polish and Puerto Rican ancestors came here for a better life, but endured poverty, dismal education, crime and discrimination from other groups. They put up with slurs such as “polack” and “spic” while they worked to feed their families. However, they never wavered and strived to make sure things were better for the next generation.

Because of them, I have the identity they wanted when they arrive on our shores – I am an American.

References:

82 Responses to “My life as a White Hispanic: Prejudice comes from all sides”

  1. Alexa January 24, 2014 at 4:21 PM #

    Hi,

    I don’t understand why you think that the concept of “white hispanic” is offensive. I am Mexican so I’m Hispanic, but I am 100% caucasian, so I’m white. My skin is really white, I have blond hair and pale brown eyes. So I think that white Hispanic is the only racial tag that describes me!
    I had never questioned my ethnicity because I grew up in Mexico where there are blond people and dark skinned people and in general everybody is a mix. So we never really question our ethnicity, we are just Mexican. But when I moved to the US and they ask you about your ethnicity everywhere I really didn’t know what to answer until I understood the concept of “white hispanic.” People have gotten confused when I tell them I’m Mexican and they say, “oh you look white,” well I am white, but my nationality is Mexican and of course my culture is 100% Latin American. I mean think about Cameron Diaz, she is Cuban, but she is white. Would you really argue that she is not white because she is Cuban? So why is it wrong to be white Hispanic? I think that it would be ridiculous for me to say that I’m not white just as it would be ridiculous for me to say I’m not Hispanic. So I’m white Hispanic😉 I mean I really don’t care about what race I am or not, I just had to find out what I am supposed to answer in every paperwork here that asks about my race!

    • Sam January 26, 2014 at 8:52 PM #

      I disagree you are “guera” which is not the same as a “gringa”. I am a mexican that looks white but I am certainly not 100% white. Ethnic Mexicans are not pure white, and our history proves that. I have family members with green or blue eys and blonde hair and some that are dark skinned. We are Mestizos, looks don’t mean crap and I am serious. After doing geneology and studying dna ancestry it’s amazing how ignorant people are of their own race. I am 1/4 native yet I look white which is funny to me a majority of mexicans are mestizos or mixed bloods. I never ever identify myself as “white hispanic” the term is such a joke. I am Mexican American not “White Hispanic” :p

    • Kim Keller January 26, 2014 at 10:31 PM #

      Thanks for sharing, Sam. I had to look up “guera.” I had never heard that before. (My family is Puerto Rican.)🙂

    • Kim Keller January 26, 2014 at 10:44 PM #

      Thanks for sharing, Alexa. I don’t think the term is offensive, but I do find the prejudice annoying. There are too many folks – Latinos included- who insist that all Latinos must fit into a certain mold and they write off anyone who doesn’t fit.

  2. andres Locklear January 19, 2014 at 7:59 PM #

    I am native amerivan and mexican. I have dark hair but my skin is olive like white and I have green eyes. I know your pain. I speak spanish. I even have an accent. But I still get called white. Although sometimes people pick up that I am latino and they speak spanish to me (makes me feel better). I just try and fit in with the rest of the latinos it works. But that after a million questions. My little sister looks mexican but she just claims to be native american. I cannot pass for eithee. But I want to embrace my culture

  3. Anonymous January 19, 2014 at 10:33 AM #

    Ahhh! I found this! My mom is Polish Italian, my dad is Costa Rican with an Irish surname and upbringing. I wound up with dark genes, except none of the culture. I learned the language in school, but I want people to stop assuming they know anything about me before trying to “connect” with me by asking me about my “heritage”.
    My sister wound up lighter, blonde hair and all (my dad was blonde as a kid, so it’s a horrible misconception that Latinos “aren’t” blonde). I’ve always envied her, because NO ONE ever stops her at random to ask her where she’s FROM. But I haven’t given much thought to the fact that she might feel it in reverse.
    Thanks for your beautiful commentary.

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