It’s that gentle onset of anxiety that builds in your stomach and slowly rises to your heart, forcing that vital organ to kick and shudder against your chest.
What if they notice I’m not supposed to be here? Or worse, they’ve already noticed I don’t belong.
We may feel this way as adults, starting a new job, or as kids, being new in school. Feeling like we belong is hard wired into our beings for survival, and once we are in “the pack,” it can be difficult to realize when others are feeling less than included. In cases of race, social invisibility can be a consequence of racial visibility. Learning while being brown doesn’t always feel like an option.
In My Big Fat Greek Wedding, there’s a scene at the beginning were adult Toula walks in to her new place of work and boldly asks to sit with some white coworkers. She pulls out her Wonder bread sandwich and smiles, finally feeling like part of the in-crowd. By ninth grade, I too, was smiling at the Wonder bread sandwich I’d made with pride.
I’d already learned time and time again that it was way cooler to be white, and I’d been making adjustments my whole life trying to achieve whiteness. My mom moved us from diverse Seattle to suburban Puyallup in an effort to find some better schools and more stability. Here, I only had white friends and white teachers, and they were all nice. I loved school, especially high school, where I happily sat in AP classes with my all white companions. And although I am so grateful to have had such a privileged experience, it came at a cost.
I certainly can’t speak for all students of color, but Impostor’s Syndrome is not an uncommon struggle for this group. Like Simmons (quoted above), my single mother relocated hoping that all of her struggles would at least result in a great education for her kid. And it did! But I had to erase the part of me that spoke Spanish and spoke it loudly in an effort to fit more comfortably with my white peers.
Despite choosing English over Spanish, I was always still referred to as an “exotic” girlfriend (which just means, “Hey! You don’t look like us!”), still presumed to be my mother’s translator (she’s lived here for more years than in Peru, but why let her speak for herself), and still jokingly referred to as the “token Mexican” within any group I found. Giving up language wasn’t enough to cover up the ethnicity on my skin. When you’re a student of color, the higher in education you go, the farther away you get from anyone that looks like you, sounds like you, or even thinks like you. I got the grades and had the friends but I didn’t quite fit, despite my efforts.
In college, I traveled to Peru to see my family. I can’t tell you how many times people commented on my accent. “You sound so weird,” relatives would say. “Tienes accento Americano.” Too many years of refusing to speak Spanish in an effort to blend in has made my tongue lazy. I constantly forget verbs in the middle of sentences. If I speak Spanish for too long, I get language fatigue. My brain thinks faster than the amount of words my mouth can produce. I can’t express myself freely anymore. Anymore. This was my first language. It is such a strange thing to not be able to do something that should be innate to your being. “She’s blanca now,” my cousins teased, calling out my whiteness. Great, I don’t fit here either.
Feeling like we belong is hard wired into our beings for survival.
I have had to choose: white or brown? English or Spanish? Quiet and respectable or loud and expressive? It’s always a struggle to belong when you should be on an island in between.
My students will not be on an island, alone. What I love most about my bilingual kindergartners is that we can learn and sing and speak to one another in a beautiful, hilarious mixture of languages. When I forget a word in Spanish, one of my kids can help me out. When they only learn their shapes in English, I can teach them the academic vocabulary in Spanish. They can be bilingual and be more because of it.
Language is the center of culture. It’s the basis for being and communicating and making relationships. There’s a better way to teach our kids than to strip them of the things that makes them fit somewhere. What are the strategies you use to bring out the best of both worlds?
This will be the first in a series of posts this year with CORElaborate. The title of this series, as well as this particular post, was inspired by Dena Simmon’s TED Talk, “How Students of Color Confront Impostor Syndrome.”
My dog also has an Instagram, and it's better than anyone's. @mrdarcy_theiggy