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Blog // Thoughts
December 28, 2008

Why Spanglish Made Me Cry

Some of you may not know this, but, for most of the 80s and 90s I had long hair, seriously long hair, not unlike the seattle grunge look (though more eddie vedder than kurt cobain). A little later, in ’95 I decided to cut my hair, for two simple reasons; a) i was sick of […]

Some of you may not know this, but, for most of the 80s and 90s I had long hair, seriously long hair, not unlike the seattle grunge look (though more eddie vedder than kurt cobain). A little later, in ’95 I decided to cut my hair, for two simple reasons; a) i was sick of the maintenance and b) too many church kids and accountants had long hair so it couldn’t possibly be cool anymore. I will never forget the senior minister of the church where I was youth pastor pulling me aside, mentioning my haircut and saying “I’m glad you have decided to stop making an issue of your ethnicity.”

Say what? I had never mentioned my ethnicity in any context at that church and it was something I chose to downplay at every possible turn during that phase of my life (it wasn’t lost on me that my denomination had no immigrants in any senior pastoral roles, or teaching positions, or heading any denominational committee at that time). My hair was a statement of many things, mostly related to the same youthful rebellion that led most of the non-ethnic crowds at Big Day Out concerts in those days to have long hair (or green hair or whatever hair). It had nothing to do with ethnicity as far as I was concerned. However, it did for him (and others in the church/denomination). Because my hair looked “ethnic” (OK it gets ringlet curly when long in a weirdly three musketeers way) it was assumed I was making a statement. Wow, I thought to myself, it really doesn’t matter what I do, people like this pastor have stitched me up in an interpretive grid of racial stereotypes. It just didn’t seem to matter that his “reality” about me bore no relation to mine.

That’s what made me cry at the end of Spanglish. When the kid “chooses” her ethnicity. I wish the issue of my ethnicity, or my ethnic identity or however you want to put it was up to me. But it isn’t. Not for me, not for anyone else.

Responses
Toni 14 years ago

Ethnicity is a funny thing, and one that often comes out in ways we don’t expect or possibly perceive in ourselves. We are facing strong white Zimbabwean ethnicity at the moment, and although it’s fundamentally christian, it is also overbearing and rule-driven (and leaves us gasping for air). I’m sure the Zim guys don’t feel like they’re pushing their ethnicity on us, but having spent a couple of hours with them, we felt every bit like missionaries in a foreign country yesterday.

One of the things that sales people have frequently said to me is the phrase “perception is reality”. Your story provides a reminder of the need to constantly check our perception IS founded in reality. It is too easy and natural to extrapolate from what we see on the outside of a person.

Fernando Gros 14 years ago

Toni – thanks for the really good examples. One of the things I’ve often struggled with is that we are often encouraged, especially in educational situations, to approach the “identity” thing as something we choose and construct within ourselves. But, as you point out, the ethnicity thing is so often constructed from the outside in.

It’s a point that people who’ve experienced real racism get, but dont always communicate well and those who deny racism are often struggling to devalue.

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