Nothing can send me down a rage spiral more than people assuming I don’t speak English or that I work at a store or restaurant I happen to be patronizing.
Let me be clear from the start. There is nothing wrong with not speaking English. There is nothing wrong with working a retail job. What is wrong, however, is assuming that either is true of me simply because of how I look.
Because, yes, it is how I look that dictates this. I look Latina. I am Latina. Therefore, people assume that I cannot speak English and cannot have done more than get a job waiting tables or stocking merchandise.
Take this afternoon, for example. I spent the morning writing up a complicated report on a cancer predisposition syndrome. That’s what I do for part of my job: I translate clinical and research activities for lay audiences. I love science, was considering pre-med at one point, but decided it wasn’t my path. I preferred words, lots of ENGLISH words, so I pursued a degree in English literature. However, I’m good enough at understanding science and medicine that I do a decent job translating it for lay readers.
But this afternoon, after I had run out to get a snack and drink to round out my lunch, I was accosted by two Mormons (trust me, I saw their materials). They ran, literally RAN, to catch up with me. The first thing one of them said to me? “Como esta?”
I took it all in: their black outfits, their heavy coats on a not-so-cold day. The Book of Mormon. Their eager, bright eyes. “What?” In that split second, I married their approach with what they had said to me.
Oh, fuck no.
“I don’t have time for this,” I snapped. Instantly, the looks on their faces changed. They realized they had stepped into it, deep into it, making assumptions about me in an attempt to coax my conversion. Oh, if they’d only known I am an atheist and not a wayward Catholic looking for another faith, too.
“And,” I added. “I speak English.”
Because when they spoke to me in Spanish, they were trying to establish commonality. They were trying to make me feel okay about my otherness, they were trying to make me feel welcome. But by assuming who I was simply based on my looks, they made a critical error. They erased my identity and isolated me in my otherness. They erased the hard work I’ve done over the years: going to top schools, getting good degrees, fighting my way toward a writing job that I love and that has the potential to help the children of my community. They erased my very diverse, amazing experiences and assumed they could connect with me simply through Spanish.
They took all the stereotypes they know of Latinos and applied them to me. They boiled me down to one thing and that is infuriating. People who assume I work in a restaurant or in a store do the very same thing. Earlier this year, while at a brewery, a woman came up to me while I was getting drinks for my husband and I. “HI!” she screeched at me. “I HAVE A RESERVATION?”
“I don’t work here.”
“Oh my god! I’m so sorry.”
But that ruined my night. My husband and I had been enjoying a nice date night, Dubya with my parents, and I ended up in the bathroom, crying for 15 minutes. Because it never stops hurting. When you’re constantly assumed to be less than simply because your skin is darker, maybe because you look younger (though at 38, I doubt it’s that), it demolishes your sense of self for a moment. You don’t get recognized for what you do or who you are—you get pigeonholed into a stereotype and an assumption that you cannot possibly have done more that their base, incorrect knowledge of your ethnic or cultural background.
(And please, if anyone’s gearing up to comment about how only I can let them make me feel that way, say that to yourself next time a family member tells you they’re feeling down or angry or offended. Tell them that feeling’s not productive because only they can let themselves feel that way. As if other people have absolutely no impact of the lives of others. See how that goes. So, fair warning, step off. I’m not having it today. Don’t deny my experience simply because it never happens to you. Guess why it doesn’t happen to you?)
Do you know how fucked up it is that I’m happy Dubya won’t have to deal with this? With her light hair, light skin, blue eyes, this will never be a problem for her. She will have to navigate sexism, yes. But racism, profiling? Never. The thing I fear the most? That she does this to someone else, but I hope to raise a child who wouldn’t do this to anyone, ever, period.
So today, because there is nowhere else to vent, I bring my spleen to the blog.
Hi. How you doing?