Of color

Jul 16 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

I was born in Latin America and moved here when I was 18. That officially makes me "Hispanic or Latino, regardless of race", at least according to the 2000 US census. According to the 2010 census, I would be further characterized as "Mexican American or Chicano". That also means that I am an "underrepresented minority in science". This fact of course was not lost on my university when I was hired, and soon after starting my job I promptly ended up in a list of "faculty of color". In fact, I am the only minority in my department, and one of a handful in my entire division. Now, to me "faculty of color" implies having brown or black skin. The problem is that, being Jewish, although I clearly am Mexican and my name is in Spanish, I don't look Mexican. Which puts me in an awkward situation. Every September I get invited to a luncheon for incoming students of color, and every September I struggle whether to go or not, or whether to sign up to be a mentor for an incoming student of color. On one hand, I can relate as a minority, which I felt much more growing up Jewish in a Catholic country where the antisemitism is real and stereotypes abound. I remember we would occasionally receive pictures of Hitler in the mail, or swastikas would show up on a synagogue or Jewish school wall. Some of my friends would tell me that their parents told them that the Jews killed Jesus. But those were things you got used to and overall I really loved growing up in Mexico. I feel very close to Mexico, and feel very Mexican. My extended family still lives there. I get tingly all over when I hear Mariachis. I eat tortillas. So in that respect I can relate to hispanic students and I've been in the US long enough to feel what is like to live here as a hispanic. Which leads me to think that I could serve as a positive mentor to one of these kids. I am a strong believer in increasing the number of minorities in science and even run a small program for high-school kids over the summer aimed towards this goal. However I'm always nervous of the reaction an incoming minority student will have when she finds out this white dude is her faculty mentor. I would feel like an impostor.

And maybe I am agonizing over nothing. Maybe my perceived lack of "minority cred" is just in my head, and any student "of color" would be happy to have a dedicated faculty mentor that would look after them, take the time to listen to their concerns, encourage them and advocate for them, regardless of what this mentor looks like. I certainly have experienced that with my high-school kids, so why would this be any different? If so, why am still so uncertain about doing this? Does it have to do with my own prejudice of what a minority in this country should be like? I don't know, these are not easy questions to answer... Maybe these guys can provide some insight:

21 responses so far

  • juniorprof says:

    Do it and forget about the cred thing. My wife is also Mexican (de Piedras Negras) and she does something like this within the hospital for new nurses. She also really doesn't look "Mexican" (how many Mexican's do anyway... my white boy growing up in the midwest stereotype Mexican image was totally shattered when I started spending a lot of time there) but she's a great role model for them. Moreover, my lab has participated in an underpreviledged high school student lab program for the past few years (all the students have been hispanic) and the kids really gravitate to her (the lab is in the hospital so she comes by) when they realize that she speaks the same two languages that they do. It also helps that she gets Mexican slang and I think they think its funny that she watches Sabido Gigante from time to time like their abuelita.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I'm thinking the Academy is still underrepresentative enough that this will not be an issue. Any sort of nonmajority is better than none. That sort of logic.

    Also, just as you think of yourself as atypical for the expected type...maybe some students are too.

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  • What a wonderful post.

    I cannot guarantee you will not be perceived as an impostor my some, but there are plenty of students who feel just like you - a minority among minorities, or uncomfortable about not quite fitting anywhere. Yours my not be the traditional experience, but you are more than qualified as a spokesperson for minorities.

  • Nice post. You are not alone--I know many people "of color", who are "mixed race" by heritage, black, hispanic, Asian, or Native American by culture or origin, and look completely white due to the vagaries of genetics. My father is like you--a Jewish person who is Latin American by birth, an immigrant to the US, and completely white looking. This doesn't remove his "minority" status. I think many people feel like imposters in different aspects of their lives. If you are interested in mentoring underrepresented minority students, then go for it.

  • isisthescientist says:

    My dear friend Drugmonkey is right. Do what you can to help them get their foot in the door. At this stage, everything helps.

    As an aside, this blog is wonderful! It's amazing to get to read your voice beyond the comments section.

  • namnezia says:

    I guess you all are right, I should just sign up. What trips me up is the term "of color", which was made quite poignant when I showed up to the association of parents of students of color meeting at my kids school to represent my two little blond and blue-eyed kids. At least their first names and mine are in Spanish, so I figure they would figure it out. But still.

    When I was in college the term for minority students was "third world students", which was even more confusing. At some point it got changed to "students of color".

  • Just found your blog through DM- great blog, glad to have you here.

    Sign up to be a mentor. These kids need mentors, and it will become abundantly clear to them that you are actually Mexican once you spend a few minutes talking.

  • theshortearedowl says:

    I'm technically a minority, being an immigrant; but I'm white (very, very white - I don't tan, I just get more freckles) and from an English-speaking country. Compared to that, you definitely have minority-cred.

    My feeling is, even if you don't have exactly the same experiences as, say a black American kid from a poor inner-city background, you can still provide a different perspective than the New England WASP, could-walk-into-whatever-job-you-chose; you can be the example that you don't need to be that person to succeed in academia. Besides, what's the worst that can happen? They don't like you?

  • Grad student says:

    I for one would love to see someone like you at "of color" events. I'm in a similar boat as you (Jewish, from south America, although female), and always feel awkward at these events as it's not entirely obvious why I belong.

  • bsci says:

    Reading this post, I was thinking about Nora Volkow, the head of NIDA. Her family immigrated from Russia to Mexico and then she immigrated to the US. She stayed in Mexico through med school, but it doesn't sound like she had a typical life growing up - she's descendant of Leon Trotsky & gave house tours to the many famous visitors while growing up. I have no clue whether her parents & grandparents were also from Russian communities though I haven't heard of any other Mexican Volkows (not that I have any clue regarding Mexican name origins)

    Still, she calls herself Hispanic, is often interview by Hispanic media (at least according to a quick internet search) and I assume it's good to have a role model at a top government agency who strongly identifies with Mexico and speaks with an accent.

    While I have no personal experience with this, comfort speaking in another language, possibly having an accent, and being an immigrant are all things that might help you relate to hispanic students. Also, the fact that you are the ONLY person in your department means you are an entry point into an area where these students thought they had zero connection.

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  • DrugMonkey says:

    What bsci said...except her accent ain't exactly Mexico. It is a very interesting gemish of what I assume to be her parental Russian (?), possibly first language (?) Russian and what I assume (?) to be Mexican Spanish influence.

  • DrugMonkey says:

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  • namnezia says:

    Actually Nora Volkow's accent in English is pretty typically Mexican. At least typical for someone who is from Mexico City and is fluent in English.

  • bsci says:

    I intentionally didn't define her accent in my comment! Hearing a fairly high government official speaking with a clearly English-not-first-language accent is fairy rare in the US. In some ways, having an accent that isn't easily placed might actually add to the benefit.

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  • Hope says:

    Excellent post! The problem is with this ridiculous term “of color,” which feeds the stereotype that someone can’t be, for example, Hispanic and also white. I’m Cuban, very fair-skinned, have no Spanish accent and a name that doesn’t scream “Spanish origin” either. So basically, the only time anyone knows that I’m Hispanic is when I tell them. This has made my life outside of Miami relatively easy – I’m not subject to the discrimination that my more stereotypical-looking friends sometimes experience, or the constant “where are you from?” questions that my mom gets as soon as she opens her mouth in these parts. (Although I’ve heard some doozies that I’m guessing people would not have uttered had they realized where I’m from….)

    In school, I always ignored invitations to “people of color” events, and I’ve been hesitant to volunteer for these kinds of mentoring efforts at work for the reasons you describe. It’s not that I don’t think that I couldn’t be a good mentor, but sometimes, people want to be mentored by someone that’s walked a mile in their shoes (e.g., women scientists seeking out other women scientists as mentors). And in our race-obsessed society, I don’t know that I have. Do I know first hand what it’s like to be discriminated against because I’m Hispanic? No … because most people assume that I’m white, period.

    Maybe the answer is that these organizations need to think a little more carefully about exactly whom they’re trying to serve. Is it really just darker-skinned folks who would appreciate mentors that look like them? Because if it’s not, they should re-think the “of color” thing. This would make them more welcoming to people like you and me (and white dudes, too!?), because it would lessen the chance that some student will be disappointed to have this white dude be her mentor.

  • Girlpostdoc says:

    I can tell you as someone who looks like she's a scientist of colour, I feel whiter than my Caucasian husband. Like you I often feel like an imposter because my connection with my parents' culture is all but gone. So if you end up mentoring a grad who looks brown or black like me, then you probably have more in common than you think. Welcome to the bloggosphere!

  • [...] when he asked me where I was from, and I told him I was from Mexico, the dude was thinking "Well, he doesn't really look Mexican" and then somehow convinced himself that, in order for his limited little world to make sense, at [...]

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