The Perils of Being Ethnically Ambiguous


It is no small thing to appear to belong to one ethnicity or another, it can often be confusing, complicated and even traumatic because for those of mixed heritage, you never seem to fit into the mold of what you’re ethnicity is. In my case, “You’re too brown for some people and not brown enough for others.” It’s not a sentiment, for only bi-racial people, it could be for those that simply feel out of place within their own ethnicity or nationality. It’s a precarious thing to look a certain way and be defined by others’ expectations of what those ways should be.

The following is a small brief into some of the perils of being ethnically ambiguous, I’m sure there are more.

1. It allows you to fit into certain groups that may not always be accepting of you, by the sheer fact of what you look like. Whether by choice or not, others make assumptions about us that allows us to live in the “in between” spaces of ethnicity.

2. You can empathize greatly with others that are also struggling in their belonging but also understand you have listening to do too. Our lived-in experiences are not everyone’s and theirs is not ours. So we must not negate others’ by denying or lifting ours up.

3 It forces you to seek “others”, if you feel unwelcome in your ethnic group- whatever that means to you. Feelings of not being “enough” of whatever the stereotype of the group may be. It can push us to seek acceptance within other groups, without full acceptance of ourselves for that outside validation.

4. It allows for our hearts to either be more open or more closed. Dealing with our own traumatic paths can allows us to crave authentic relationships with others or close ourselves off from those we seek approval from. For some, it takes a few years of internal work and maturity to rectify the situation, for others it may be a lifelong battle.

5. We let others define us. I’ve had the privilege of being thought of as a light-skinned black woman, as a Mexican woman, as some kind of Asian, and most recently as a darker white person. Not through any fault of my own but through others’ assumptions. I used to take to heart what others thought sincerely and it would leave me an emotional wreck. Because of all the things I could be, it didn’t allow me to be me.

So instead of making assumptions, allow spaces for people to be themselves- whatever that may be.

Sometimes growing up and even now, I’ve always had trouble with the question, “What are you?” As a Dominican immigrant child, growing up in a mostly low-income neighborhood full of racialized people from all over, I found the question perplexing. It was often by children, adults knew better- I hope.

But the question made me pause and take into account my stock of all the things I was. My parents were Dominican, I was born in Dominican Republic but we lived in the US now, so was I American? My father told me that outside I was American but inside the house I was Dominican and that further complicated my young brain.

Spanish is my first language and I remember having to go to kindergarten and learn how English. My teacher Mrs. Hammer, was a wonderful puerto-Ricardo woman that was patient and kind. And didn’t make me feel like being bilingual was a bad thing, but something happened when I went to first grade. I somehow passed a test that allowed me to transfer to another school where they tried to change my bilingualism and separate it from my vocabulary by separating the two languages but definitely insinuating one was more important than the other. This had some important effect, the biggest being it forced me to shut into myself. Increasing my longing for introspection and so I was tagged the “shy girl”.

We moved across the country then and had to deal with a few changes. The first, a whole new school system, recently desegregated. Whoo! I had just made the curve so that brown students weren’t all sent to the same schools. Here, we had various issues. My non-gendered name made my paperwork confusing. My parents’ broken English made enrollment complicated, and because of my shyness administration thought I belonged in special education.

After taking some tests, I was enrolled in GATE (Gifted and Talented Education program), sounds like the beginnings of a complex if I know my story, but that’s for another time.

All during middle school, every time I spoke Spanish, I was teased, because of my accent. My cousins in Dominican Republic teased me because I spoke like “una americana” and the people at school thought I spoke Spanish like “una gringa”. I would later come to learn, my accent is the blending of my environments, both ethnically and diversely, I say words that are very Dominican like ‘cambumbo’ along with words I heard others say like ‘carpeta o trucka’.

Me in Middle School, turtle neck and all.

In high school, my activities broadened my horizons but like everyone else I felt awkward and unsure as I made my way in the world. I started letting my curly hair show instead of always straightening it at my tia’s every weekend. This created curiosity about my heritage again. Mexican girls didn’t normally have curly hair, so what kind of Mexican was I? So I went from Mexican to light-skinned mixed girl or black girl, because the one drop rule still applies.

So once again, I was being redefined by others, and not denying them their understanding because technically yes my mother is half-black and my father is white. However, their mixed heritage is something we’ve never fully discussed. I’d always grown up explaining the way I looked like this, “I’m pretty sure, one side of my family owned the other.”

In college, I tried to join the Caribbean Student Association but I soon realized I wasn’t the right kind of Caribbean. So I joined Raices, a latinx group mostly Dominicans that put on a performance every year. There was a moment of pause, however, when I went to the first meeting and they asked,” You’re Dominican?” They had been so taken aback, I started to question the validity of my ethnicity again.

I finally convinced them I had been born on the island but had grown up far removed other Dominicans and had therefore lost my accent, which I thought was interesting considered they had all been born in New York but what did I know of colmado culture then.

Me in University, as part of the AUTV anchor team-yea I was the face of something.

My greatest transition came shortly after I moved to China. Which I was expecting to be different because it’s China, but funny enough it was unexpectedly so. It was the first time where there was genuine curiosity, sometimes blatant racism, and just an overall weirdness to it.

While demonstrating a lesson on family I genuinely shocked my students because I had a white grandmother and a black grandmother and they couldn’t comprehend how I could be a part of both.

A man nearly crashed his moped into oncoming traffic for the need to stare at me. I was hired as an r&b “singer” because they couldn’t find a curvy black girl, so I had to do for the commercial. I was allowed entry into apartment buildings, clubs, festivals and other places not just because I was a foreigner but because I was often mistaken for a white foreigner (not the same experience as some of my black and southeast Asian friends in China).

Even dealings with the police on more than one occasion, left me feeling much less frazzled than if I had been a shade or two darker.

Now living in Montreal, the microaggressions still exist. Maybe for different reasons, sometimes for not looking the part especially now as part of a multicultural family. Who knows? But right now I’m tired of trying to explain others’ behavior, that’s a story for another day.

We can be told a lot about our selves all our lives but it’s up to us to learn how to write our own stories.

Published by JSantana

Obsessed with Intentional Inclusivity and Fierce Belonging. Delivering Culture-Driven Leaders.

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