I recently got into an argument with a friend over my race. This isn’t the first time, nor is it the last. In fact, I’ve had this conversation nearly half a dozen times. Yet, I never get less infuriated. My family is from Cuba, an island 90 miles south of Miami. My ethnicity is Cuban. I can speak Spanish, I eat Cuban food, and Cuban culture is ingrained in my every move. I am, however, white.
I’ve never totally understood this conversation. For me it is quite simple, my race and my ethnicity are two separate entities. For many people, this concept is quite confusing. I tried to explain this idea to my friend, who was German. “Your heritage is German, but in terms of race, you are white.” This made sense to him, but somehow he couldn’t fathom me being white.
I quickly grew frustrated, not because being something other than white was the problem, but because I didn’t understand why he felt it made sense that he was white if he was German and yet was convinced that I, as a Cuban, was not white. At this point in the conversation, I became aware of the millions of people that struggle with this idea.
I realized that this kid was not speaking out of hate, but simply out of ignorance. I’m terrified that in only eighteen years of life, I’ve had this conversation six times. This concept seems rather inherent to me, yet clearly there are flaws. How do we bridge the gap? How do we educate people and get rid of such ignorance?
Moreover, why was I so upset? I acted as if this kid was attempting to insult me and my entire family, yet that was not his intention at all. Similarly, it’s not as if not being white is some sort of insult. Was I only upset because I felt like a close friend didn’t know me as well as I had thought?
How do we begin to discuss race and the issues it has created within our society if we can’t define race? If we, as a society, fail to recognize the difference between ethnicity and race, how are we to fight discrimination and segregation. But in recognizing my own faults, if we stand too closely to our own race, how do we avoid allowing racism to exist in our daily lives and our institutions if we do not know the ways in which we are allowing racism to thrive?