This past summer, I had to learn the hard way that racial judgments go far more than just skin deep.
Working as an unpaid political journalist for ROOSTERGNN, combined with sharing a cozy apartment with my best friend on the Upper West side of Manhattan rent-free, provided the perfect anecdote for the summer experience of my dreams.
I decided to pick up a part-time job at the Victoria's Secret across the street, because let's be honest, even living rent-free in the sleepless city is expensive (I blame Shake Shack).
One late evening, I was working the closing shift with several of my closer coworkers when I experienced an encounter that I had never experienced before.
I was having a conversation about my Colombian grandmother with one of my VS peers, as we tediously proceeded to fold one of the many panty tables, when I was ear-splittingly interrupted by another sales representative from across the room, exclaiming, "Wait, you're Hispanic?"
For about 30 seconds I stared at her speechless, keep in mind that the majority of the VS workers at this location were predominantly of Hispanic descent, particularly Dominican Republican or Puerto Rican. I couldn't understand why she was so shocked to learn of my Latina nature -- I looked just as foreign as the rest of them. I am 50 percent Columbian and 25 percent Puerto Rican; my skin is naturally tan, with dark brown hair and eyes.
When I asked her what she meant, she responded with the phrase, "Well, it's the way you talk. You talk like a white girl."
Putting two and two together, I came to the horrifying conclusion that what she meant was, in actuality, I speak using proper grammar. Even more troubling was the "matter-of-fact" way she stated this assumption. It was obvious that she didn't mean any insult or harm, but simply thought that she was stating what she deemed to be a true fact.
After her statement, my other coworkers gathered around and slowly confessed, one-by-one, that they too were surprised to learn of my Hispanic blood due to the way I speak.
I know it was unintentional, but I immediately felt offended. So I'm labeled as "white" because I use proper English, because I take my education seriously?
I vaguely remembered discussing this "acting white" phenomenon in one of my Intro to Sociology courses during my first year at Smith. However, my ignorant freshman self categorized it as something that only targeted peoples of African American descent, rather than all groups of minority.
For those of you who are unaware, the term "acting/talking white" is a derogatory phrase that describes someone who has perpetually abandoned his/her culture by assuming the social expectations of "white society," particularly in educational success.
The phenomenon was first constructed by social scientists John Ogbu and Signithia Fordham in the 1980's, claiming that more often than not, minority adolescents ridicule their peers for engaging in behaviors that they perceive to be of white nature. These characteristics can range from the way one speaks, dresses, or behaves.
Researchers have since claimed that various experiments demonstrate that minority adolescents, who obtain good grades in school, enjoy less social popularity than their white counterparts because they are either frowned upon or shunned by their minority peers. This mindset then respectively plays a significant role in the increasing racial achievement gap among minorities and Caucasians.
However, I was led to believe that these attitudes were debunked with President Barack Obama's victory in the 2008 election. He had previously made clear his views on educational success in the black community during his memorable Keynote Address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004.
"Go into any inner-city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can't teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to parent, that children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white."
Yet, after my VS encounter, it appears that the notion of "acting white" has become a myth, is a myth in itself. After doing some heavy research, Harvard Professor Roland G. Fryer brought to my attention that the concept is in fact, very much alive, and even worse off in regards to Hispanic students.
His recent studies provide that a Hispanic student with a 4.0 GPA is the least popular of all Hispanic students, and that Hispanic-white differences among high achievers are the most extreme. Equally disturbing, he finds that black and Hispanic students with GPA's above 3.5 actually have fewer cross-ethnic friendships than those with lower grades.
The issues at hand here are the consequences that negative social pressures in the classroom are inflicting upon the long-term quality of life opportunities presented to minority students. In attempts to "fit in" in racially mixed classes, bright minority adolescents are cutting themselves short of reaching their full potential to thrive in educational settings, and respectively representing their races in elite colleges or universities. It doesn't take a genius to recognize that, in these days, achievements in higher-levels of education lead to more stable careers.
These concerns also go beyond affecting the individual minority, but to the welfare and competence of our country's economy as a whole. As the United States continues to globalize, shifting towards a knowledge-based economy, education is key in attaining a strong workforce. A strong workforce means the ability to compete in the global economy. If minorities continue to devalue education, they are less likely to finish school, attain steady jobs, and ultimately break the ugly cycle of poverty.
Growing up in Utah, I was constantly surrounded by straw-blonde hair and crystal blue eyes. I was viewed as exotic, and proud of it. I had never felt pressured to act in a certain way because there were very few other minority members present. Because of this, I was naïve to the fact that in cities as diverse as Manhattan, distressed communities are continuing to provide minorities with their identities in a colorless way -- allowing the social costs of breaking free to remain high.
Professor Fryer suggests that the solution resides in finding ways for society to encourage these high minority achievers to thrive in settings where adverse social pressures are less intense. It is our job to applaud any adolescent of any color that is fortunate enough to receive an education and enjoy it.
At the end of the day, there are many factors that have shaped the way I speak -- my parents, circle of friends, level of education, and so on -- but I refuse to let my skin color be one of them.