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Columns

'White Enough'

“Who is to say that robbing a people of its language is less violent than war?” —Ray Gwyn Smith

By Laura S. Veira-Ramirez, Crimson Opinion Writer

“You’re just white enough. That’s why I like you,” he said through a toothy smile.

My white then-boyfriend joked as I sat next to him in the car. I had been telling him about a meeting I had gone to earlier that day. A group of black students had been joking about the lack of seasoning in white food and had turned to me to say, “No offense.”

Something like this had never happened to me before. Strangers had come up to me speaking Spanish all the time. I grew up considering myself to be very brown, as I am the darkest in my family. I am praised by my family for my ability to tan—I’ve never burned. I considered myself very visibly Latina.

It is only in the past few years that I’ve been coming to terms with the fact that my brownness is only a few drops mixed into the European whiteness that took over South America. In my light-skinned, Colombian household I may have been dark, but in the larger world I could fit into whiteness more comfortably than most people of color.

What had bothered me about this statement was that it furthered this feeling of cognitive dissonance I had been experiencing. What bothered me most was that he had felt comfortable enough to say that to me. I was white enough for him to think that was okay. I was white enough for him to think I wouldn’t get offended. How did I get to this point?

***

In middle school, I began taking the higher-level classes that brought me into a predominantly white friend group. My school was pretty diverse, but the classes I was in were not. I could blend in pretty well physically with my white friends, who mostly came from the wealthier part of town. I didn’t look like much of an anomaly in our group pictures. But the differences began to become more noticeable as I tried to conform to a more educated, white culture only to face reminders of my reality.

Our differences presented themselves in small things, like when I had to answer the phone in Spanish around them. It was presented in the small comments made that I didn’t notice so much when I was young: “Oh my god. Do you, like, live in the ghetto?” one of them asked when I was given a ride home after a birthday party.

***

In high school, I was the only Latina again in several of my AP classes. I was considered at least “white enough” to be in them because I was smart. Teachers gave me a chance because the racial barrier was smaller to overcome. It was easier to get ahead with stereotypes not holding me down as much as some of my peers. I also learned that whiteness is not only seen as the color of your skin; it is attributed with intelligence and wealth. Being a person of color meant poverty and lack of intelligence or laziness.

Even my name—the way I allowed others to use it before college—was “white enough.” Laura Veira. There was no trace of Latinidad in the English pronunciation of my first name and constant mispronunciation of Veira as Viera. I introduced myself that way. I Americanized myself to make it easier for others, at the cost of my own identity.

I was, to some extent, scared of my Latinidad. I didn’t recognize how much I had kept it hidden in order to fit into my friend groups. Looking back now, I recognize that my academic success made me feel like an exception—like I could belong in this white world. After all, I only felt confident enough to date a white boy after I got into Harvard. All my previous boyfriends had been Latino because I didn’t feel inferior to them. Getting into Harvard proved I was “white enough.” I became somebody he could be proud to bring home to his family despite our different backgrounds.

***

Ironically enough, getting into Harvard had made me feel like I could finally start identifying more as Latina. It wasn’t exactly my choice at first. I had posted my acceptance reaction video without giving much thought to the language it was in. I had opened it with my parents so most of it was in Spanish. People I knew claimed that I had only been admitted because of affirmative action. While some challenged my acceptance, others reached out to me letting me know how much I had inspired them as a Latina going to Harvard.

I felt more like an outsider coming in. My distance from whiteness at Harvard was much greater. But I was able to find a home in my Latinx community. I have felt more connected at Harvard than I had been in middle and high school, which were times in my life where I was siloed into spaces where I was sometimes the only Latina. I began embracing my Latinidad more as I realized I had gone my entire life letting others define me.

I fought back as I started introducing myself as Laura the way it was meant to be pronounced in Spanish. I fought back as I began using the hyphenated Ramírez in my last name. My resume now proudly displays my full name with accents and everything: Laura Sofía Veira-Ramírez.

***

This past summer, an incoming Latina freshman came up to me asking about the way I pronounced my name. She had always Americanized her own and was intrigued to hear the way I introduced myself. I was caught off guard by the observation and realized how far I had come, having only been at Harvard for a year. I was glad to hear her pronouncing her name in Spanish when introducing herself the next day.

I am trying to decolonize my mind. I am trying to reclaim my Latinidad. I am trying to take myself out of this white mold into which I have tried to force myself.

Laura S. Veira-Ramírez ’20, a Crimson editorial editor, is a History and Literature concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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