In this world, how people perceive you is already decided before birth. The color of your skin, the texture of your hair, the city you're born in, what your last name is: All of these things contribute to how you will be labeled. It determines what opportunities you will be presented with as opposed to ones you will have to work for, or even the ones that will always be out of reach.
When I was 9 years old, my mom moved us to a much "nicer" neighborhood. She was very focused on her children receiving a great education and living in a safer environment. Although I was excited to live in a place that had nicely paved sidewalks and beautiful trees, I was severely hit by reality. In my new middle-class small town, my world was whitewashed in every sense. With color erased from all around me, I was no longer color blind.
The color on my own skin stood out more than ever.
With a white mother, white friends, and white teachers, I had no one around who looked like me. Disney wasn't giving girls who looked like me their own shows; we'd be lucky if we even got a cameo. No one I looked up to or spent my time around resembled me. I hated the way my hair curled while everyone else's fell straight. I couldn't stand to look at my caramel complexion while everyone else's shined ivory. The curves on my thighs and my muddy eyes seemed grotesque compared to the lanky girls with eyes that shimmered like precious stones. I felt ugly, unwanted, and ostracized. I felt un-everything.
The more I felt this way, the more my hatred grew for the young, curvy Latina looking back at me in the mirror. At the tender age of 11, I realized I wasn't the only one who looked at me with disgust. I realized my white friends would suddenly stop hanging out with me once their parents saw me in passing. I noticed my teacher's surprise when I excelled above all other students, as if they expected me to be dumb. I heard the huffing and puffing when educators couldn't pronounce my name as if it was oh so inconvenient. I didn't know why people treated me differently for how I looked, but I knew they just did. And I didn't like it.
For the next few years, this feeling caused my self-esteem to drop, an eating disorder to develop, the damaging of my beautiful curls, and my dislike for most POCs. I was conditioned to think Latinos were unsuccessful, dumb, and ghetto. I was taught to think African-Americans were lazy, dangerous, and (again) ghetto. I thought Asians were weird and eccentric and Muslims were dangerous. I was actively fed stereotypes that encouraged me to dislike my fellow minorities and left me envious of white perfection, wishing I were one of them. Funny thing is I was half of them, but that didn't seem to matter.
I proclaimed proudly that I was half Italian, never wanting to reveal the other half, even though they could see it on my skin. Anytime an application was passed my way or I had to fill out information about myself, I'd check the "WHITE" box under race. If there were any way for me to erase my Puerto Rican background, I would have. I tried fitting in with my white classmates any way I could. I'd straighten my hair as flat as I could get it. When summer came around, I'd stay out of the sun. I started skipping meals to get down to that trim and thin figure all the other girls had. I listened to pop and rock radio while denouncing hip-hop publicly, even though that's all I'd listen to in secret. I begged and pleaded with my mom to let me dye my hair lighter colors.
To put it very simply: I just wanted to be white.
It's hard enough growing up in a town that is around 96 percent Caucasian, but when your own beautiful mother doesn't share your skin or culture, it makes matters worse. Minorities who live in towns like this tend to look toward their family to fit in. They may not look like the kids and teachers at school, but at least everyone at home can relate. At least they can see themselves in their greatest role models: their parents. But I couldn't see that because my mother was paler than the lightest part of my body, had hazel eyes, and was freckled all over.
And my father? Well, he was nowhere to be found, along with the rest of his family.
The ones who plagued me with this undesirable skin and the awful head turns that followed when I walked by, the ones who made me this way, were nowhere to be found when I needed them. They reassured all the stereotypes I had heard, "You know Latinos don't take care of their kids" being one of them. I felt that the only people who I could say looked like me were the very people I wanted to remove all relation from. Some of it was clearly teenage angst, but some of it was a building hatred of my own ethnicity.
Needless to say, I have overcome the issues I once had. I couldn't be more proud of my stunning complexion and my Boricua culture, and I love my fellow minorities more than anything. But I never forgot the way I felt when I realized that the world I grow up in will always be different than the world my friends will grow up in. I knew that they never had to think about their own skin color; they just had to think about mine. I knew they never had to work harder than everyone else to earn praise; they just had to get the job done. I just knew we were in two different worlds. So I started looking for people in my world to look up to.
Most privileged folk lack to understand how vital representation is. It makes the difference between children thinking that they will never amount to anything, versus a child believing they can take on the world. I'm lucky to have found my way and lucky to have found my own role models (it began with incredible women like Nicki Minaj, Adrienne Bailon, Rihanna, Selena Gomez, and a few more). At first it was like digging for gold. It's no secret that mainstream Hollywood is far from diverse and unbelievably whitewashed at most times. White movie stars, musicians, models, actresses, and reporters are EVERYWHERE. How often do you see minorities cast as superheroes and princesses? Almost never, and that's the problem.
I needed to know that I could be just as great as they were. I needed to know that white people weren't the only ones who could succeed. I needed to know that lacking white features did not make me less than them. And most of all, I needed to know that I wasn't UGLY.