On March 4th, 2017, three Latina students painted the phrase “White Girls, take OFF your hoops,” on their college’s free speech wall, in opposition to the latest “trend” that felt more like cultural appropriation. A week later, a piece written by the women behind the mural appeared on my Facebook news feed. It was an in-depth assessment of the invisibility and professional “socialization” that women of color undergo at predominantly white institutions, which strip them of their “hoops and [their] brownness” in order to be taken seriously as students. On May 1st, I accepted my admission to the same predominantly white college where “White Girls take OFF your hoops” was written on a wall, an institution 2,756 miles from home.
Despite everything I had been warned about, I felt like I had found what I was looking for at this college. There were already many appealing aspects to this particular school―like its commitment to social justice, and the unique curriculum centered around “social responsibility,” “Interdisciplinary learning,” and “intercultural understanding.” But the prospect of being stripped of my brownness was frightening, especially since I had already experienced this throughout high school. However, the revolutionary act of three Latina students calling out white folks on their bullshit was jaw-dropping. Whenever I had tried something like this in a classroom with a teacher or amongst classmates it backfired with comments suggesting I was “the racist one.”
I’m not racist. I’m Mexican and Dominican. I’m the butt of almost every racist joke I’ve heard. And I’ve heard plenty ― usually from the same classmates who accused me of being racist when I questioned their privileges and made a distinction between the experiences of those who are white and those of us who are not. Somehow, the conclusion always ended up being that I’m the one with prejudice and institutional power.
I’ve watched my Asian and Jewish classmates make fun of themselves and each other. So when it was about brown people, I forced myself to “take a joke” and act like it was “fine.” But it really was not “fine” to have people make fun of cholas, and call Mexicans “drug dealers,” and call all Central American people “Mexicans,” and make absurd commentary on a culture and people that they don’t even know. But these were just microaggressions, I thought, nothing to send me over the edge. But overtime, I began to feel inadequate and insecure as one of the three brown students in all of my honors classes.
I began to go through my own form of “professional socialization.” I wanted to be taken seriously. I stopped using my mother’s hoop earrings; they served as a constant reminder of her upbringing in the hood of Paterson, New Jersey. I longed to be hidden deeply within the fabric of the dominant culture. It was attractive, it was ideal, it was accepted, and it was taken seriously.
It was white.
This socialization occurred at a time when I felt the most pressured by Eurocentric beauty standards; when I was the most self-hating; when I spoke Spanish the least; and the time when I felt the most lost. This was the time when I deeply desired any form of acknowledgment from a white person, any form of validation from a white person―whether it was from a teacher, a neighbor, a friend, a random girl or a random boy. Anything would have made me feel complete and accomplished. Instead I had to sit through class while my white teacher ranked the respectability of Spanish speaking countries (of course putting Spain at the top, leaving the Dominican Republic and Mexico as the second from the bottom and the bottom, and completely leaving out all of Central America) for fun. I had to watch as white girls confidently wore hoop earrings while they mocked the very culture that produced them. These were the saddest moments of my life. If I learned anything in high school, it was to censor myself.
But outside of school ― as I read, became involved in activist theatre, and attended workshops and conferences deconstructing race ― I decolonized my mind. Through these media and spaces I began to think critically about my identity.
This was when I really began to asses the privileges and the ignorance of white folks, and I looked closely at my relationships with the white folks I was closest to. And I started calling people out in class, only to be deemed a “racist” in return. Yet, I knew that this was the most enlightened I had ever been, and I expect only to grow now that I’ve graduated from high school.
I thought that I wanted to go to a school for social justice activists and freethinkers but even in those schools there are toxic practices and ignorance that create an isolating experience for women of color.
What I really wanted was to be surrounded by badass Chicanxs and Latinxs, unapologetically being themselves and advocating for their people, and that’s what I found after seeing “White Girls, take OFF your hoops” written on the walls of Pitzer College.