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by Brenna Womer

NELLE 5 | 2022

On a campus shuttle my sophomore year of undergrad, a woman sat next to me and whined about her beet-red sunburn. I was polite and smiled and listened about her weekend at the lake.

     “You’d understand if you were white,” she said, and my stomach seized up. I’m mixed, but it’d been a while since anyone called it out like that; I’d let my guard down. I’d forgotten that when white people say that shit, it feels like an accusation; it feels like being caught.


My husband thinks astrology is bullshit, but if you ask me, I’m a Gemini sun, Cancer moon, and Leo rising. I’m also an INFP-T, an Enneagram 4w3, and my love language is words of affirmation; though, I tend to show love by giving gifts. According to my Enneagram results, I’m a compulsive identity seeker, and it’s embarrassing to admit I needed the test to tell me as much.

     I don’t see myself clearly; I never have. I’m fighting a lifelong battle against dysmorphias of body, intellect, and achievement. And a few years ago, in my mid-twenties, I realized I’ve also been enduring a crisis of heritage, of blood. As a young person who felt the inescapable friction of never quite fitting into the homogenous society and culture in which she was raised, I thought the only way I might ever stand out as worthy of affection and admiration and love was to blend in at all costs. And because of this thinking, I rebuffed any threat to the veneer of whiteness, even the ones I now see as rife with potential offerings.

I attended middle school at Bethel Baptist in Hampton, Virginia. It was a K-12 school and most of the classes were taught by people without education degrees, who may not have had degrees at all; I doubt the school was accredited. Most of the teachers were parents, as were the “librarians.” We read a lot of Jane Austen, memorized carefully selected poems from Dickinson and Longfellow and Frost. Each book in our closet of a library was hand-selected and approved by a committee comprised of the very same parents and teachers and church elders. We had chapel every school day and were expected to attend the adjacent Baptist church with our families on Sundays. We also had a mandatory retreat at a rural camp every year, which all the students plus chaperones travelled to by bus.

     One evening on the retreat, I was changing at my bunk before dinner, and Tiffany, a Black girl in my class, looked over at me in my underwear, and said, “Dang, girl, I thought you were skinny like all these other white girls, but you’re thick like me.”

     I don’t remember how I responded—though, I probably let out a nervous giggle and ran to hide in a bathroom stall—but I do remember obsessing over the comment and feeling deeply conflicted for a long time after. I was moved that another person had recognized themselves in me, had named a thing that made us like, which my white friends never did. But I was afraid and ashamed that what she recognized of me didn’t conform to what I understood was beautiful: thinness and whiteness. And I didn’t know how to locate value in any part of me that was anything else.


Sometimes my mother texts me pictures of photographs of Mexican relatives I’ve never met. My great-grandmother, Alice Salazar, married a white man, had five children, and refused to teach them Spanish. This was a rare detail about my grandmother’s childhood and something I couldn’t understand when she said it while chopping cucumber for Sunday lunch’s obligatory iceberg side salad. When I asked why, she said she didn’t know but that her mother only wanted her kids to speak English.

     In 2019, I met an art professor named Mariella while teaching at a university on Colorado’s Western Slope. We were the faculty advisors for the two components, visual art and literature, of the campus literary magazine. We actually liked each other, so our advisor meetings took place at a brewery over snacks and beers, and I learned she’s from Puerto Rico. Mariella and her husband, a white man who works in IT, had brought her mother from Puerto Rico to live with their family in Colorado, and they’d hoped to bring her brother and his family too after Hurricane Maria, but the Trump administration had squashed that dream for the time being.

     Eventually, I told Mariella about my Mexican heritage and how I’d only really learned about it once I was grown. I told her my grandmother never spoke Spanish because her mother wouldn’t teach it, and any Hispanic or Indigenous culture Alice may have known had stopped with her. I told her when my grandmother was fifteen, she married my grandfather, an Italian American submariner, and that now they’re Southern Baptist Conservatives retired in rural Missouri. They love ranch dressing and Sean Hannity and don’t own a spice rack, and we rarely talk about the people and places we come from.

     Mariella said she wasn’t surprised, that from what she understood, it’s fairly common for Latinx immigrants, especially from Mexico, and first-generation US citizens not to pass on their native languages as a matter of survival. It’s seen as a burden to bear, just one more thing to render them other. And so, culture is lost; histories are erased; blood is bleached.

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