"By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; and by knowledge its rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant treasures." Proverbs 24:3

On Being "White" in a Brown Body in a White World

Here I am with my boys.  Do I look like the hispanic nanny?
I am what my mom would call, "Chop Suey."  I'm Mexican, Hawaiian, Puerto Rican, Chinese.  So I guess you could say I'm Mexhawricanese.

When I was a child I didn't know I was brown.  I guess in my Alice-in-Wonderlandish thinking I supposed that my skin just changed to match the color of my surroundings like a chameleon.

Actually, my parents never pointed out differences in skin color, so I never really thought about it until a well meaning Sunday school teacher pointed it out to our whole class.  She explained that we should love everyone the same no matter what they looked like.  She used my sisters and me as examples.  "Even though their skin is a different color, we love them just the same as anyone else."

At first I was confused.  Why would she say that?  Then, I looked down at my brown hands and glanced over at my sisters' brown faces.  Finally, I looked at everyone else in the class.  I saw white.  I was six years old when I realized I was brown.

Not too long after that, the cutest little white girl rubbed my face and innocently said, "Your face is dirty."  Another child at the playground insisted that I was from Nicaragua and couldn't be convinced otherwise.  In Jr. High, a friend ask me if anyone ever though I was "negro."  These little reminders that I was a different color kept popping up throughout my childhood and they continue on into my adult life.

Let me set the record straight before I continue.  I love being brown.  It's exactly how God wants me to be.  I like being different because it makes life more interesting and often humorous.  I wish I could speak Spanish fluently.  I wish I really knew how to dance the hula well.  I wish I could make pateles and junto with ease.  I wish I wasn't scared of that red dragon in the Chinese parades.  But really I'm just "white" in a brown body living in a white world.  And when you're white in a brown body living in a white world, people sometimes make awkward and hilarious assumptions about you.

The following list is a humorous compilation of my own personal experiences...

When you are white 
in a brown body in a white world:

  1. People assume you are looking for a job when you go to a farm to pick strawberries.
  2. The checker at the grocery store tells you to, "Slide your EBT card, honey."
  3. People speak to you in Spanish and you regretfully have to say, "No hablo Espanol."
  4. Children may think you are dirty and suggest that you wash your face.
  5. When you are at the playground with your own children, other moms ask, "Are you their nanny?"
  6. A random lady from church may call you on the phone to see if you know how to prepare cactus.
  7. Your husband-to-be's relatives welcome you to the U.S.A.
  8. When your friend is scared of the hispanic man on the walking trail you think, "He looks like my sweet old grandpa."
  9. People ask if you're traveling "home" for the holidays. 
  10. People envy your year round "tan."
  11. And last but not least... You are thankful that you've never experienced discrimination like your father who was punished in school for speaking Spanish, or your grandpa who played in the trees at recess while the white kids had fun on the brand new play ground.
Have you ever had anyone make assumptions about you based on your skin color or other appearance?  Or, have you embarrassed yourself by assuming something about another person?  Leave a comment and let me know...  I'll laugh with you : )


  1. This is great! I can add many but someone asked me once...what catholic church do you go to? When I said I did nit they said oh I thought mexicans were catholic. :) - jen

  2. Situation #1:When playing at the playground my sweet tan (as his sister calls him) boy has other kids try to talk to him in Spanish, and they get very upset when he doesn't understand.

    Situation #2:Today, hubby saw a teenager we know walking so he offered her a ride. She didn't know exactly how to get to her party. My dear husband suggested they stopped and ask those ladies over there for directions. She replied, "I would never ask people like that, they scare me." Then paused, looked at him (possibly remembering my daughter is black), and stammered "oh uh, its not because they are black this is just a scary neighborhood"

  3. Once someone knows your heart Tennille, they don't even notice what shade of flesh you have. You are one of the most beautiful people, inside And out and the minute people know this, they fall in love with you. What a wonderful, healthy outlook you have on life. Also, what a compassionate disposition you have regarding your patience with other's ignorance.
    God made you and He makes no junk. God Bless


  4. Here's another perspective...At the end of 2004, during the civil war in Cote d'Ivoire we were evacuating thousands of Liberian refugees through the airport in Abidjan. At one point there was some severe anti French retaliation with mob attacks against French and other westerners. People hid on roofs while others were pulled out of cars and attacked. Lots of chaos. After some negotiations we were allowed to continue our humanitarian evacuation with military escorts for our convoys. I was ready to go, eager to get everyone to the airport and loaded onto the charter flight. But our security officer stopped us at the door of the office and said, "no whites allowed". No problem I thought, looking around at my two fellow international staff (one from Senegal the other from Kenya). We continued. "No, only black, no whites! You can't go....", the security officer repeated. All three were now looking at me. I protested, since I was never called white before, but that night, I had to stay behind...even as a Mexhawricanese.

  5. The similar term in Chinese culture is "banana" - yellow on the outside, white on the inside... My own experiences have not been as negative, for better or worse:

    1. People ask "where are you from"? I say Seattle. "No, I mean..."
    2. It's obvious when someone is calling to do a survey or to solicit. "Hi, is this Mr... Chee-oong...??"
    3. Growing up, kids automatically assume that you must be smart. I didn't do anything to disprove them, though.
    4. Then there's the question - "What are you anyway? Japanese? Korean? Vietnamese?" Keep going...
    5. Popular racial boundaries don't often apply. When I went with a team to do a spring break project in Compton, CA, we were told not to worry, because white people wouldn't be targeted as that would get the police's attention much more than violence on black people. I wonder where that left me.
    6. My grandfather told me to marry a Chinese girl, not a Caucasian one. "Chinese girls are much better." Whoops.
    7. Some are surprised if they see our kids only with their mom that they have a Chinese heritage. If they see them with me then of course, they see it.

    Then there is the interesting other world - When You Are White In A Yellow Body In A Yellow World. Since I visit Asia somewhat regularly, I get these experiences as well:
    1. People ask "where are you from"? I say the U.S. "No, I mean where is your family from?" I say Seattle. "No, I mean..."
    2. It blows the minds of my Chinese colleagues, that I speak fluent English, yet appear Chinese. It doesn't help that I don't speak Mandarin, the primary language in China/Taiwan - I have to remind them that Cantonese is a Chinese language as well. It still messes up their paradigm.
    3. There is one benefit - I don't get targeted by aggressive vendors and touts at such popular tourist venues like Nanjing Rd in Shanghai or Nathan Rd in Hong Kong. My Caucasian colleagues get swarmed.

    T. Cheung

  6. I learned about racial profiling in college from my East LA roommate. Funny, growing up in the burbs I never really thought about skin color. We were all the same.:)

  7. Lisa Lisa- I'm sure you get some interesting/ awkward comments with your colorful family. I love it!!

    Anonymous- I'm so glad you were safe. It's funny that you had to stay behind for being white even though you are clearly brown!

    Tommy- that's a great list. And, yes, I have experienced being white in a brown body in a brown world. I've travelled to a few countries in Central America and of course Hawaii to visit family. If I just keep my mouth closed, people assume I fit right in!

    Cheryl- Thanks for the comments. You are always so encouraging!

  8. Here's a fun one...
    Sometimes I'll let the kids run ahead to the playground and follow behind, find a bench and pull out my Nook. You wait about 10 minutes and you start to see/hear the other moms/parents wondering where those children's parents are. After 20 minutes, I got out and round up the kids and the surprised looks always give me a chuckle inside :)

    Also, the best way to catch people gawking. Walk down a grocery aisle, excuse your way through a tight spot, got about five steps then find an excuse to turn back around. Funny how many people are either talking and pointing or just staring trying to figure out our dynamic :)

  9. In my case I am Peruvian and I have an accent, so... People ask for my ID when I buy a 2 dollar product in Walmart or people don't offer me the store credit card. Once at my daughter's school the secretary kept speaking loudly and signs because she thought I did not speak or understand English and why? because she wanted to explain how I can get free lunch for my child. Once a doctor's secretary told me she wasn't going to make an appointment for my child because I did not give her my medicaid number and I had no idea what it was and I kept looking on my insurance card for that number... This is what I recall for now, but there is more! lol