When Passing is Failing

This is going to make most of you uncomfortable. I will use language in this blog that makes you uncomfortable. Race and bias is not something Americans like to talk about.  We all know there are problems, but we don’t know how to fix them, and we don’t want to admit to ourselves that deep down, we all might have our own prejudices to contend with.

Today, I’m not going to pontificate or problem solve. I’m not going to hypothesize about what’s wrong. Candidly, I don’t have any of the answers nor do I truly understand all of the whys behind our countries issues today.

Instead, I’m going to tell you a little about my story. My experience with prejudice, with feeling different and confused, and how it shaped the person I am today…mostly through making some really cowardly decisions at 18. 

This is me

To give you a starting point, this is me.  This is my family. I don’t show us very often in my blogs. They are part of the private me.  For family bloggers, many of us draw a line between what we will and will not share. For me, pictures of the family stay private. But today, I think it is important to see us for who we are.

soares-family-snip

What do you see? 

We are a bi-cultural family. My husband is white. I’m Mexican-American and white, though I never got my dad’s skin color no matter how desperately I wanted it.

Our children are 25% Mexican-American, 20% Irish (roughly), 20% German (roughly), and a few other European nationalities mixed in. Yes, you read that correctly. The red-head, blond, and brunette babies you see in this picture are more Mexican-American than any other ethnicity.

Let’s start at the beginning.

My name is Diana Maria Leza Sheehan.  My mom is white. My dad is Mexican-American.  Technically, I’m Texican (it’s a Texas Mexican, and I might have made that up but it really does fit). My paternal grandparents and my Dad grew up in Texas during the Jim Crowe laws of the south. The Mexican communities in Texas and parts of the South were subject to the same disgusting laws that segregated African Americans in other parts of the south. My dad has always tried to hide the emotional scars of growing up in a country that didn’t respect him, that segregated him even though his family had been here for generations, solely because of the color of his skin.

My mom is German, Irish and more. Her mother grew up in Nazi Germany and fell in love with an American soldier after the war. My grandpa’s mom immigrated from Ireland and raised my grandfather and uncle as a single parent during the Great Depression. They were poor. Incredibly poor. And there were emotional scars left there too.

The thing that I’ve learned about prejudice in America is that it tends to be based on what you see, not what you know.

That’s what is so ironic about being me. I am proudly Mexican-American, and yet most of you don’t see that. I am fair-skinned. I have dark brown hair, but not black hair. I have chocolate brown eyes, but not dark chocolate brown eyes. For most of my life, I’ve had to fight to SEE myself as Mexican-American because I didn’t look it.  And I had to choose to be Mexican-American, in a world where passing for white would sometimes make things so much easier.

The first time that I was called a “spic,”  I was six years old. I was in a Catholic school in central Indiana that was almost exclusively white. I had no idea what it meant, but I could tell by the way the eight-year old said it, that it was not a kind thing to say. I never told my parents. I didn’t know how. Throughout the next six years that I spent at the school, I was called a “dirty Mexican,” a “wetback,” and more.  I had a boy in 6th grade throw a broom at me and tell me to go clean the floors. Most of the time, I didn’t tell my parents. I couldn’t.  But in a small town, you can’t hide who you are. They knew that my dad was Mexican-American, their parents knew, and that was enough for me to be “bad.”

I saw the ugliness that was passed on to children from parents to their kids about racism, even though I didn’t look it. As an adult, I wonder how incredibly horrible it must have been for my father and his friends living in the same community as an adult.

It’s a question that I have never had the courage to ask.

When I was 13:

When I was 13, I moved to Texas. My family came later, but things had gotten so bad for me at school that I couldn’t stay. That summer, we went to visit my dad’s family in Texas. I was surrounded by family. I was loved. It was simple.

I won’t say that race wasn’t an issue. Race and culture are an issue in every culture.  Blacks vs. whites. Blacks vs. Mexicans. Whites vs. Mexicans.

No matter how perfect a society is, and ours is far from perfect, human nature tends to push away those that look or act different than you.

But for me, it was easier to be half-Texican, surrounded by other Texicans, then a Mexican in Indiana surrounded by whites.

When I was 18:

When I was 18, I had a bit of miracle happen. Thanks to hard work, an amazing support system of family, friends and teachers, and the good fortune of doing really well on a few standardized tests, my world changed.  I had the chance to go away to an amazing university .

The college was in the Midwest. Ironically, I found myself once again in a different world. But what I found in college was that I didn’t really know where I fit. I wasn’t completely white, but I wasn’t completely Mexican. I was uncomfortable and I was confused.

The challenge with racism is it scars you.  The kids that I went to college with were not unkind. They were not like the people that I grew up with in Indiana as a girl.

But, I had been shaped by a world in which I felt compelled to fit in one place. In one box.  And in those first few weeks, I made a choice that I will always regret.

It began with a your typical freshman college party. Beer in a cramped dorm room. The dull roar of everyone talking at once. “Sweet Caroline” in the background, followed by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, followed by whoever came next on the playlist.

I kept introducing myself. “Hi, my name is “Dee-on-uh. What’s yours?”  My name is spelled Diana, but I grew up with the Spanish pronunciation. You don’t say it like the Princess, or the singer. It’s “Dee-on-uh,” and it’s the one clear connection to my Texican self when I appear so white to the outside world.

But the response was almost always identical. There was nothing malicious. It was innocent. “Huh? Did you say ‘Jenna?” Or, “Dina? How do you spell that?” or as the night progressed, it was just “What? I’ll call you D.”

And then, I’d go into a 10 minute explanation about it being the Spanish pronunciation of “Di-ann-uh.” And then, we’d stare awkwardly at each other. And then, I’d walk away.

It was such a small thing. And yet, it made me uncomfortable. It made me stand apart and alone when all I wanted to do was fit in somewhere.

The moment that I failed

So, roughly six weeks in to school, during our second home football game against the University of Washington, I made a decision.  I decided to make things easy. Though I didn’t understand it at the time,  I decided to pass.

We killed Washington that afternoon, and everyone was in great spirits. And at the parties that night, I started to introduce myself as “Di-ann-uh”  There were no follow up questions. No explanations necessary. It was so easy. Yet, looking back, for four years, I lost a little piece of myself to simply fit in.

For four years, I was Diana. My husband and his family met me as Diana. My best friends in the world to this day. People who flew from all over the country to stand by my side at my wedding, met Diana not “Dee-on-uh.”

I never once pretended that I wasn’t Mexican-American. I was vocal about it. And yet, the one identifier that bridged me back since I don’t look like a person of color was very easy to shed.

Racism isn’t always the big things

We as Americans want everything to be simple. We don’t want to have difficult conversations about what unconscious bias really means.  We don’t want to admit that the scars of the Jim Crowe era just doesn’t magically disappear in a generation. Nor do we want to acknowledge that centuries of segregation, denigration and persecution, have left many communities unable to move forward without a new infrastructure that enables their children to be upwardly mobile in our country today.

For people of color, it is often the isolation that scars us. Being the only person of color never feels good. Being the hidden person of color gives me more freedom, but it allows me to witness more of the ignorance about diversity too. But as we have witnessed over the last few months, America and white Americans have not magically moved to a place where they are color blind.

Candidly, the desire to be color blind could be the problem. We need to embrace our differences, not hope they will disappear. 

As black men and women deal with racism every day, as Trump calls for us to persecute an entire group of people because of their faith, as all of us refuse to have a real conversation about how to make this better, the country will continue to spiral out of control.

Overt hate scars, but isolation can be just as disruptive and sometimes as damaging.

My greatest shame was deciding at 18, that it was easier to pass for white and become “Di-ann-uh” over “Dee-on-uh.” My biggest hope is that fewer and fewer people will feel the need to hide who they are because of their fear of being different.

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One thought on “When Passing is Failing

  1. Marcella Resendez

    Fail? You did what you felt was easier cause you wanted to have the same opportunity as everyone else and because you earned it. Sharing your story is paying it forward to another so when it happens to them they’ll make better choices for their situation. I’m an so proud to say you are my friend and proud of you like crazy! I say you passed!!! You go girl keep on keeping on and the legacy your leaving for us and your children I say Thank you! You rock!

    Like

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