Being a Brown Student Doesn’t Define Me
A Mexican-American high school student explains how it feels to be lost in an all-white crowd.
High school is the milestone of a teenager’s life: the adventures, the classmates, homecoming, prom, football games, all that. But the experience is different from those of us who don’t blend into the all-white crowds at schools like mine. Students with perfect white skin will never know what it’s like to be the only brown person in the packed bleachers of a football game. They won’t know what it’s like being the only Hispanic in a class of 30 students. They’ll never feel the anxiety of having to pick and choose what they should and shouldn’t talk about in front of a room of white students for fear of being judged.
But I do.
I’ve sat in classrooms with my hand raised, but I always seemed to blend into the background. I never heard my name being called. It was always someone with a bright white hand. Now, I’ve been called on. It’s my turn to speak. It’s my brown hands that are writing. I’m no longer “the Mexican girl" in the back of a classroom. I’m just a girl, and I’ve made my way up to the front.
Lost in a Sea of Whiteness
The first day of school is always nerve-wracking. It’s a new year, a clean slate and you never know what to expect. The only thing I can be sure of is that there won’t be many other people who look like me. My school is predominantly white. Every year I walk in assuming I’ll be the only Hispanic there. If I’m lucky I’ll be one of three. This is the image to keep in your head: 30 students, one classroom and a girl who looks nothing like everyone else.
The beginning of the school year always includes a period of getting to know our classmates and learning everyone's names. For me, it always goes one of two ways. I might go in and say my Spanish name as my classmates stare at me, then at each other. Or they’ll ignore me and not bother to try to remember my name or face. Either way, I’ll have to hear my name constantly mispronounced, even when I’ve said it correctly day after day.
Sophomore year: My first period was geometry. It was good. I considered myself lucky because there were two Hispanics including myself. My teacher was nice. I was happy.
Second period came and again I felt lucky because I was one of three Hispanics. I love English: It's where I do what I enjoy the most, which is writing, even though it’s also the scariest, because we’re required to share our writing with the whole class.
Classroom 642, where I had history in the fourth period, is where everything went downhill. For me, history is the most daunting class after English. This time I was the only Hispanic in the room. As an icebreaker exercise the teacher assigned us partners to exchange information about our lives, and then we’d go around and introduce each other. I mentioned to my partner that I’m Mexican-American and that’s how he decided to introduce me: He stood up and said, “This is the Mexican girl.”
Everyone stared, giggled and whispered to one another. I, on the other hand, felt embarrassed. I put my head down on my desk and felt a tear fall onto its surface. I felt disrespected. Walking into that class as the only Hispanic was already hard enough. My partner’s introduction just made it worse.
I wasn’t embarrassed about people knowing my ethnicity, because that’s the thing about me that I'm most proud of. I was embarrassed by the fact that out of everything I told my partner, this is what he remembered. This is how he wanted to introduce me. Even if he didn’t mean to, it doesn’t change the fact that he hurt me. I’ll never forget it.
Nonwhite Students Have to Work Twice as Hard
Every year I try to walk into school with an open mind, but it really is difficult. Not everyone likes having to share a room with a “Mexican girl,” let alone becoming friends with one. Believe me when I say it’s hard to make friends with a white boy or girl when you are clearly not one yourself. We don’t share the same lifestyle, and half my history is different from theirs.
Some white students would talk to me in class, but outside of it, when they were around their friends, I couldn’t even get a smile back from them. I guess it’s only okay to talk to one of us Hispanics when we're reading Romeo and Juliet, but not when we’re doing something else.
I’ve always believed that Hispanic students have to work twice as hard as white ones. For us, not everything is set. College isn’t always a choice on the table. It’s not something we feel promised. If we need scholarships, we have to look for them. We have to learn ourselves, because we aren’t every teacher's priority. We can’t ever forget that our white classmates come before us—they’re first and we’re second, always. That’s just what most teachers were taught to do.
But we can’t complain, because at least we’re able to attend a predominantly white high school, right? At least we are getting not only an education but the school activities, right?
The truth is, all school activities are run by white kids. Hispanics aren’t encouraged to be a part of them. I bet they don’t even notice if there are no brown kids on the bleachers at school games, or on the dance floor of homecoming and prom. All they care about is that their high school experience goes as planned.
After 13 years of school, speaking in front of my class frightens me. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t speak at all for the whole eight hours—not because I don’t have anything intelligent to say but because my white classmates don’t understand. They couldn’t care less what a “Mexican girl” has to say.
I always have the same conversations with my teachers when it comes to presentations. They always say that it’ll get easier if I start doing it more, but will it? I’ve been told the same thing since third grade. I'm now a junior in high school and it’s still not easy. If I get up from my seat in the back and stand in front of the students with white skin, will I actually be talking to them? Will they actually listen and think about what I’m saying? Or will they go blind and deaf as soon as I step up there?
Schools Talk About Diversity; I Don’t Feel It
Here’s the thing: I can't blame my classmates for it. They have been trained to only look at what is white; the same thing goes for some teachers. To this day, I haven’t convinced my teachers to offer me alternatives to giving presentations. I always end up in front of the class anyhow.
But every time before a project that involves speaking, I have to look hard at the topics and choose something that doesn’t involve much from me. I always pray that we aren't asked to speak about personal stories. I can’t simply go up there and start talking about my family’s history, or who they are and where they come from. Anything I say can be misunderstood. Anything I say can be used against me.
I wish it were different. I wish my Hispanic classmates could get as excited as my white classmates when big dates came around. I wish the whole school could enjoy our high school years as a united student body. I wish that when I opened my school yearbook I saw pictures of all kinds of students—not just the beautiful white ones but the ones with beautiful colors. But it’s still just a wish upon a star, one that hasn’t yet become true.
Don’t be fooled by what schoolboards say. They like hearing the word “diversity” next to their school name, but don’t like actually showing diversity inside the school’s walls. The powers that be still don’t realize that it’s okay to look past the white hands raised in the front. If they did, teachers would call on us who sit in the back. If they knew true diversity, I wouldn’t be the only Hispanic in their classrooms. I would be more comfortable speaking to my white classmates without fearing their judgment. High school should be a place where we can all create memories, not develop fears. It should be the best four years for every student's life—even the ones who aren’t white.