I was sitting by myself outside of Freshii waiting for a friend when a guy sat down across from me. Clearly not interested in talking to anyone, I continued scrolling through Instagram on my phone. He stared at me as his friends watched and laughed.
“Can I guess?”
I looked up briefly and acted confused, but I knew exactly what he was trying to ask.
“Can I guess your nationality?”
Without looking up from my phone, I answered calmly.
“I am American.”
Disappointed with that answer, he continued to sit with me and harass me with more questions, as if he was entitled to the answers. His friends kept laughing but walked away once they saw this conversation wasn’t going the way their friend had planned.
“You look foreign. You’re too tan to be American. Where are you really from?”
I looked down at my skin and then back at him. Though I’ve had interactions like this more times than I’d like to remember, I still didn’t know what to say.
I was born in New Jersey. I lived in New Jersey all my life. I have recited the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in high school and sang the National Anthem at basketball games.
I am American. The color of my skin or the blood of my ancestors does not make me any less American.
By asking people “where they are really from,” you are othering them. You are telling them that they do not look like they belong here. It’s not innocent curiosity — it is a deliberate way to put people of color into boxes for your comfort. Especially at a predominantly white institution such as Elon, where diversity is already lacking greatly, asking questions like this make people feel like they do not belong.
The man sitting across from me began listing off every Latin American country he could think of, lumping them together as if they were interchangeable. He asked me where my parents were from, saying over and over again that I don’t look like I am “just” American.
Finally too tired to continue this conversation, I told him that my father was born in New Jersey and my mother in Puerto Rico.
“You should’ve led with that. You know that’s what I was asking.”
But that was not what he was asking. He asked me where I was from. I am from New Jersey.
I am proud to be Latina, there is no doubt about that, but my being Latina does not cancel out the fact that I am American. It may come as a shock, but American is not synonymous with white. You cannot define American with a skin color.
So, no. The color of my skin is not an invitation to a fun guessing game. You do not get to put me or any other person of color into a box. We are just as American as anyone else. You do not get to make us feel otherwise.
This column appeared in the January 18, 2017 edition of The Pendulum. Columns are written by ENN staff members and represent their informed opinions. Columns and other opinions content are separate from news coverage.