Gloria, an swpd reader sent the following email:
I’m a sophomore at a very white university. I’m a Mexican American female, and I speak with a bit of an “accent.” I’m also a little dark, so people don’t generally see me as white.
I’m thinking of transferring to another, more diverse university, because I’m just not comfortable here. A big reason is that although I’m clearly Mexican American, and that means certain definite things to me, including who and what I am, I often feel a friendly pressure to assimilate. Other students, especially, push me to do “normal” things sometimes that just don’t fit my background or who I am, even sometimes physically.
Last week I was in my room, for example, and a white student who knows me through other white students popped in. She had something in her hand, and she held it up while she was smiling.
“I think this would fit you!” she said. I saw that it was a dress.
Now, I just don’t wear dresses. That goes back to my conservative background; my parents, for instance, never would have let me wear dresses. I knew enough not to even ask, but anyway, I never wanted to.
So what could I say to this friendly smiling person? Should I say that I don’t wear dresses? Should I explain why I’m not comfortable in them? And on top of that, was she implying, as other girls here have, that I should wear dresses, because that’s “normal,” or better, than what I wear?
“Um, thank you,” I said. “Where. . . where did it come from?”
Was this a used dress that she was like, handing down to me? If so, what would THAT really mean?
“Oh, my mom had it sent to me. It’s really pretty! It’s brand new, but it doesn’t quite fit me. Do you want to try it on?”
“Um, okay . . . “ And as she walked into my room, I said, “Wait, I mean, I’m sorry, but no. I’m okay, thanks. Thank you anyway, very much.”
She stopped and dropped her arm that was holding out the dress, and she dropped her smile too.
“Well, okay,” she said, turning around quickly to leave. “That’s okay. I just thought it would look nice on you.”
She sounded almost hurt, and then she was gone. I felt confused. And then I felt frustrated.
I notice that white women as students here often push me to join in their ways. Their “fun” or “pretty” or “attractive” ways. I have dark, wavy hair, and they've asked several times if I’ve ever considered straightening it. Other women make suggestions about my makeup that fit lighter features and hair then mine. It’s hard not to think of them as seeing these things as connected to their whiteness, but in ways they really don’t see about themselves, and about what they're doing to me in those moments.
The professors don’t seem all that sensitive to my ethnicity either. One knew that I’m not white and called me on it in class, by asking me to speak to how I felt about a topic (race and prisons) “as an Hispanic person.” As far as I knew, I was the only one in class. In that case, I didn’t feel like I was being pressured to try to be white—I suppose it was the opposite. But in either case, I didn’t feel right.
Most of the time, my ethnicity is not acknowledged in class, but then that doesn’t quite feel right either. It’s like, again, I’m expected to be white somehow—talk white (I’m aware of my “accent,” and always trying to curb it), act white-feminine (nice, smiley, polite, not loud, doesn’t interrupt—I think even my body language might change on campus), be “like a normal person,” which here means a white person.
So, I’m hoping to transfer to a more diverse campus near the city I came from.
But I wonder, do others feel these things, badly enough to want out like I do? Or am I overeacting?
I’d love to hear from any interested swpd readers.