This morning, I was asked a question that I’ve never been asked before: “Desiree, despite your light skin, do you identify as a woman of color?”
I paused before responding. When I sat back to examine my response, I saw my experience and myself as a light-skinned CHamoru woman in all its complexity. My immediate response was, “yes.” It was a very quick, very confident, “yes.” That was weird for me. I realized that there was a large part of my life wherein I might have hesitated to respond because, based on my experiences, I knew that people would come along and discredit my “yes” as the result of my physical appearance. I might have toyed with the idea of not responding to the question at all (or maybe messaged the inquirer with a private response).
I also realized that the question was resonating in a new, profound way. For some reason, the question, “Do you identify as a woman of color?” felt different. Like I was being asked something that smelled the same as the “Are you Chamorro?” but tasted different.
Within the short span of time that it took for me to reflect on my response, a flood of images swept before me. It reminded me of a scene from a movie, the part of the film when something big is about to happen and a series of quick images flash before the viewer. I giggled, a little amused with the path I had wandered down during young-adulthood to finally sit here and feel, deep within my bones, that “yes, I am a woman of color.” It was surreal.
I’m a woman of color?
You know, now that you mention it, I guess I am.
It was strange to suddenly sit there and think about it so directly. For some of you, this may sound confusing. For those of you who know me, you may be wondering why in the world it was such an eye-opening question in the first place. You might be saying, “Isn’t it obvious? Look at your family picture! Your father is brown; your relatives are brown; your mother looks white, but the rest of your family is brown. Your mother’s mother is brown. Your grandfather’s mother is brown. Your paternal grandparents are brown. There is more brown surrounding you than anything resembling white, so why, Desiree? Why in the world would you ever question whether or not you are a woman of color?!”
And here is what I realized: The question wasn’t hitting a new chord simply because I am a light-skinned Chamoru woman. The question was hitting a new chord because many CHamorros forget that they are people of color in the first place.
Generations of Chamorros have engaged in the process of trying to prove how American they are. We create distance between ourselves and other Micronesian Islanders. We create distance between ourselves and other oppressed groups. We create distance between us and groups who are similar as we try to inch closer to the US. Our political history has produced generations of Chamorros who yearn to show that despite the political, cultural, and geographical disconnect between Guam and the Continental US, we are still “one of you.” But on this side of the globe, many generations have connected American-ness with whiteness. And in a sick way, there are many CHamorus who try to mimic the perspective of a privileged white person, even when, deep inside, something about it doesn’t feel quite right for them. It’s almost like trying to force a puzzle piece where it doesn’t belong. You can force it to fit, but ultimately, it never fits comfortably; and the big picture looks a little off. For privileged white people, “people of color” are those who have been oppressed, people who are “not the same,” people who are not or have not been, at different points in history, “equal.”
Many Chamorros don’t want to be that.
They won’t acknowledge that they ARE, in fact, THAT. (Because that would mean that they might not be as “American” as they thought they were; and as inaccurate as it is, some of them have mistakenly linked being white with being American.)
Despite our history of Chamorro political and racial oppression, our distinct culture, and the ever-glaring inequality between residents of Guam and the US, we don’t acknowledge this because of the lingering colonial desire to be “the same.” Children are raised knowing that they’re Chamorro, but told that being Chamorro is the same as being American. And yet, kids get confused because they can’t help but recognize the differences between their physical features, attitudes and opinions, or the cultural practices they keep from those in the media surrounding them.
This is very obvious in the way in which many on island commonly confuse nationality with ethnicity. Many students here will quickly announce that someone doesn’t look like they’re from Guam because they “look American.” They forget that technically, they’re American too. They forget that many of the American troops stationed here are not white at all. Many of the American troops stationed here are Black, Asian, and Hispanic. But what they mean by “you look American,” is that the person “looks white.” They will tell you that someone who looks completely different from them “looks American,” but then sing “proud to be an American” at school the next month.
This Halloween, my son ended up wearing a “Captain America” costume. Eyebrows were raised by some of my colleagues and friends, but my son is two. He liked the bright colors, the shield, and the fake muscles. He has no idea who Captain America is. As a matter of fact, he thought he was a “fireman” the whole time he wore it. When he put it on and ran around, people were extremely tickled. Yes, he looked adorable with his fake muscles and shield, but what really got people excited was that, unlike other little boys who might be wearing the same costume near him, he “really” looked American. He got high-fives and cheers. When he ran toward my uncles, they would act really impressed and say, “Wow look at that AMERICAN BOY!” He ran by bihas who announced, “Eyyy na buniton patgon. Amerikanu!” He got so much attention for looking “American” in it that he refused to take it off for about three days after Halloween.
Everywhere he went, people would admire how AMERICAN my boy looked in his costume. The funny thing is that when he’s not in his Captain America costume, people point out that he could pass for white like it’s unfortunate (or like they feel sorry for him). This used to bother me. I used to worry that he’d grow up ashamed or disappointed in his appearance the way I was. But I’ve learned that if I teach him there is nothing wrong with his skin color, then he will grow to understand that there is nothing wrong with it. The Captain America costume experience made me keenly aware of how contradictory our views toward America can be here on island.
Some of my relatives were flat-out disappointed in his costume, even those who are American war veterans and soldiers (but CHamoru). They asked me why, out of all the superheroes, I had to let him wear a “Captain America” costume. I reminded them that he was a toddler and for him, it was about colors, shields, and fun.
But I did end up switching him to a Jake the Pirate costume later in the evening for the family party. And as you can see by the picture below, he wasn’t as excited about the Jake costume as he was to wear Captain America’s fake muscles. lol
I grew up my whole life being called “white girl” or “haole girl” by friends and family. At one point in my life, I decided to accept the title. When people asked me what I was in high school, I would sometimes give up and answer “White. Can’t you see?”
When I did this, I was even more confused, because if anyone in my family heard me tell someone I was “white,” they were upset with me. “Desiree, you are NOT white! You are Chamoru!” they’d scold me. I remember my aunt once berating me on facebook for jokingly referring to myself as a haole girl. Her disappointment confused me because, growing up, she had called me her “haole girl” on many occasions.
It wasn’t until I went to the Continental US and started to interact with, what my family would call, “real white people,” that I started to make new connections and realizations about where I fit in. I realized that I could not relate to some of their experiences and was often quietly hurt or offended by their comments or ideas (many of which were the products of being raised as women of racial privilege). I also found that sometimes I would mimic them, pretending to feel the same way when I didn’t.
And all the while pretending to identify more than I did with them, I couldn’t help but notice how honestly and easily I could relate to many of the things I read in my college classroom about oppressed groups. I initially struggled to want to actively label myself as a person from an “oppressed” group.
Why? I am.
That whole phase of my life seems so far away, but I reflect on it with much gratitude. I had been raised being told that Chamorros are “the same as Americans in the states.” I grew up in a community that often asked our children to focus on our sameness. Recently, one of my White girlfriends expressed confusion when I felt insulted by something she said and comforted me by saying, “But Desiree, I’m not talking about you! You can pass for white!” (As if it were some kind of award.)
I remember reminding her that when she talked about “people like that,” she was talking about me. When she talked about someone who “looked like that,” she was talking about the people I shared a bloodline with. I once gently asked her, “You’ve seen pictures of my family right? You’ve seen pictures of my dad. You know that when you say things like that, you’re saying them about me too, right?” And still, the friend insisted that I could “pass for white.” (I love her, but it takes so much energy to break down these issues for someone like that. A part of me thinks she’ll just never get it.)
(Below is a video wherein an instructor pushes her students to reflect on their understanding of white privilege, the refusal to acknowledge differences, and the insistence that we are “all the same.” This is the video that prompted my friend to ask me the question.)
When other indigenous groups or people from similar political histories tried to connect with me while away from Guam, because of our obvious commonalities, it was an awakening. All these people wanted to celebrate our DIFFERENCES. They wanted to showcase the beauty of our people’s uniqueness. They wanted to foster pride in a way that was productive, not destructive. Through them, I learned that there wasn’t anything divisive about accepting a difference. There wasn’t anything disloyal about admitting an injustice took place. There wasn’t anything embarrassing about coming from an oppressed (or suppressed history). There wasn’t anything wrong with “not being the same as any American in the Continental US.”
It took being around “real White people” to realize what it meant to be (and that I am) a woman of color. The question posed this morning, by my friend, Danielle, made me reflect on what an interesting process it has been on my personal journey toward self-understanding and acceptance.
I recognize this same inability or refusal to identify as people of color by many people around me. I’m sometimes really appalled by certain people in my life when they talk about “black people,” “mexicans,” or “micronesians” in negative ways. They sound like white supremacists. They’re saying things that they’ve learned to say from people who feel that exact way about them.
My uncles sometimes make really racist or bigoted remarks about other ethnic groups, particularly groups of other Micronesian islanders, but turn around and shout “that guy is racist” when they hear a white person make the same comment about them. They suddenly realize that the white guy was lumping them in the same category the whole time. I always watch their faces really closely when this happens. The amount of indignation and bottled up hostility that washes over their face for a quick moment always speaks volumes to me. Right after that moment, they race to bottle it up and regain composure. They don’t want to be caught acting like an angry minority (even though they are).
Internalized racism is big here… and it has become really fascinating for me to sit and observe. There are many Chamorros who have so expertly appropriated the voice of the privileged white citizen that they only remember they are NOT one when they come face-to-face with, for lack of a better term at the moment, a REAL Caucasian-American. I even have an uncle who regularly writes very disparaging things about CHamoru people in our local newspaper. He always upsets other CHamorus, but our local media is dominated by the conservative white perspective, so he’s upheld and continually given a platform to communicate from. He’s almost like the privileged white man on Guam’s favorite Chamorro, because he reminds other Chamorros that they are inferior for them. I’ve heard many people on island call him “house-broken,” which I always think is really sad. There’s so much internalized racism going on with him that instead of feeling angry at him, I can only worry about him and his emotional health.
I started to think about how many of us are like my son on Halloween: really good at putting on the Captain American costume and running around. But when we take it off and walk around as ourselves, we’re illustrations of our home’s distinctness and complexity. Being asked that question this morning, “Do you identify as a woman of color?” made me realize just how much I have learned and experienced over the years. It made me feel grateful for the experiences I’ve had, even the hurtful ones. Because today, I was able to answer a question that would have once confused me and made me feel unconfident with complete self-assurance. That’s something to celebrate.