They Think I’m White


DISCLAIMER: I wrote this post in pieces over a couple of years but never released it. I’m not exactly sure why I am releasing it now. Maybe it’s because I am on vacation and I’m too lazy to write something new this week (just a couple touch-ups here and there). Maybe it’s because I’m tired of seeing this stuff happening. This is written from the perspective of race but also applies to gender, sexual orientation, etc. Anyway, it’s a different post for me but actually still has to do with critical thinking. As with everything I write, I hope it makes you think…

My mother was born Nurys Cabrera-Martinez. When she was 12 years old her father was dead and she was sent from Cuba to the United States alone to live with a foster family as part of Operation Peter Pan.

My father is Enrique Manuel Meira-Aguilar. When he was 19 years old he came to the United States from Cuba alone. He was allowed to bring one small suitcase and nothing else. He still has that suitcase.

Neither could speak English

My father worked building tables while he went to school to learn about refrigeration, specifically air conditioning. He then worked with air conditioners to put himself through college to become an electrical engineer. When I was a kid, he worked at the hospital where I was born keeping the electrical systems functioning across the complex. He spent the rest of his professional career overseeing the plant operations for optical system development (lasers) for a defense contractor. My mother went to college and became an elementary school teacher and later a consultant for educational software. They are both retired now.

My older brother’s name is the same as my father’s, just with “Jr” at the end. But by the time I was born, things were becoming different within my family. My mother had already legally changed her name from Nurys to “Nikki”. My parents’ new neighbor couldn’t say my father’s name, Enrique, so she decided, “I’m just going to call you ‘Rick’.” This is the nickname he still uses today. My two-year-old brother was now being called “Hank” (Enrique is Spanish for Henry, ergo “Hank”). Their second son? Well they named him Erik Peter Meira because “Wonder Bread Meira” was a little TOO white apparently…

My parents decided that it would be best to speak only English in the home. They felt it would be to our advantage to speak one language very well, and English would be the one to serve us best academically. My father had a pretty thick accent at the time and it was felt that speaking English in the home would be better for him as well. My brother and I didn’t learn any Spanish as children. When the two of us took Spanish in high school, we had to convince the school that we were not native speakers. My Spanish today is passable in light conversation at best. I still can’t really speak it although I wish I could. That’s on me.

I grew up in the salad bowl that is South Florida (preferred to “melting pot” as the cultures do not “melt” into each other but integrate as distinct units). My high school was only 40% white leaving the rest of us constituting “the other”. There were Cubans, Africans (American and otherwise), South Americans, Filipinos, etc. Everyone had an accent. But this school was still different than other schools in the area. Other schools that were a little less…uh…”diverse”.

My soccer team was made up mostly of Haitians and Jamaicans with a mix of lighter skinned ethnicities and the occasional Caucasian as well. We would often have to play the schools from the “better parts of town” with their soccer moms filling the sidelines rocking the orange slices and electrolyte drinks for optimal hydration. They seemed so clean with matching bags and high-end cleats. We on the other hand were a disorganized hodge-podge of playing styles and patois slang. Those white teams would beat the shit out of us every year.

Comments were often made by opposing players and fans during the games that were “questionable”. One time in particular I remember a kid working right past one of our defenders and scoring an easy goal. The defender, my teammate, was a dark-skinned fellow from Haiti with a very thick accent and he was fuming. As the other guy jogged past my teammate after scoring the goal, the guy puckered his face at my teammate and made monkey noises. My teammate just stood there staring at him, taking it. For me, something clicked in my head and I saw red. Right after play resumed I went over to the guy on the other team and intentionally got tangled up with him and brought him to the ground. I was laying under him and as he went to get up, I kicked him as hard as I could in the stomach. Best card I ever received.

But to be honest, I never had it that bad. Everyone knew I was Cuban but rarely did a white person ever make offensive comments directly to me (once a generic ethnic slur during a game about loving plantains but to be fair they ARE really tasty). Personality-wise I was always an “odd duck” so any social awkwardness could have just been attributed to that. If whites in South Florida said disparaging things about Cubans, I never really heard it…

When I left South Florida, something changed

The first time I noticed it was when I was in college. I had moved north to “The South” and studied at the University of Florida in the northern part of the state. A lot of kids were from the northeast United States. They were white but they were no more white than other white kids I had grown up with.

“Hey, do you guys want to rent a video?” I had said this many times in the past to my white friends back home in South Florida.

The two white guys I was with looked at me funny. “Why do you say ‘video’ like that?”

“Video? Like what? I don’t understand…”

“‘Veedeo’. You say ‘veedeo’ like you’re Puerto Rican or something.” I realized for the first time that I said “video” like my dad and that wasn’t the way white people said it.

It happened again when I offered to walk my friend’s dog and asked where he kept the leash.

“LeaCH?! You mean leaSH. You sound stupid.” I was embarrassed.

It was at that time that I picked up the habit of over-enunciating the letters in a word. I passed it off as me just being funny and weird but it was a defensive move. I also began listening intently to the way white people talked. It actually wasn’t that I normally had any kind of accent – I was a native speaker who ONLY spoke English so I really shouldn’t have an accent. There were just a couple key words that I used that had an accent but in the cultural mix of South Florida those words would go unnoticed. I identified them and fixed them – no more accent.

But something else was going on, and I was completely unaware of it at the time

I figured it out a couple years later after I had moved way farther north and out of Florida to Washington, DC. As a new PT I had spent all my money on a ticket for a trip to the South Island of New Zealand in the late 1990s. I wanted to see Mt Cook where Sir Edmund Hillary trained before being a member of the first two-man team to summit Mt Everest. I also wanted to see an albatross.

I had purchased a seat in a small tour-van headed from Dunedin to the Otago peninsula where the albatrosses are. It was full of a bunch of white people. Turned out, we were all American. One guy took it upon himself to find out where everyone was from. When they got to me I told them that I was living in Washington, DC but grew up near Miami. “Yeah, Miami seems nice except that it is full of Cubans.” Everyone laughed.

I glanced around at everyone laughing. At first I thought they were laughing AT me for being Cuban. I was wrong. I laughed along nervously. Suddenly, I realized something for the first time:

They think I’m white!

They were laughing WITH me as if to say, “We know what it must have been like, fellow white person, surrounded by all those Cubans!” I didn’t say anything. It was one of the most awkward moments of my life. When I lived in South Florida, I could easily be identified as Cuban. But when I was taken out of that context I magically became white.

When I got back to the United States I started asking my white friends, “Did you know that I’m Cuban?”

“What?! I always thought you were white,” was the most common thing I would hear. Usually I would then hear, “Now that I look, I can see it.” It was sometimes followed by “I wish I would have known. Did I ever say anything that offended you?”

Then a lot of things started to make sense…

The guys in college thought it was weird that a WHITE guy would say “video” and “leash” like I did. I looked white. I talked white. My name is Erik, spelled like a Scandinavian for heaven’s sake!

And also my last name throws people. Even people in South Florida don’t recognize it as Hispanic. That’s because it’s not exactly. My grandfather on my father’s side was gallego which means he was from Galicia in northwest Spain near the border with Portugal. The name is Portuguese. So I got in the habit of saying it was Portuguese to avoid the long conversation. Turns out that white people don’t mind Portuguese heritage so much – Who knew?!

But here’s the funny thing: I actually AM white

I wasn’t born that way. I was made that way. I was named white. I grew up speaking white. Looking back, I was actually raised white in the home. And I have another “advantage”: I look white. I don’t carry my race on the color of my skin or my facial features. I “lucked out” on so many levels.

But I am as much Martinez, Aguilar, and Cabrera as I am Meira (which still is of Hispanic ancestry for me, mind you). My name could just as easily have been Ernesto Martinez or Juan Carlos Cabrera or Roberto Aguilar. Had my mother and father stayed in Cuba, I would not be white anymore. Yet, my genetics would have been EXACTLY the same.

This has given me a weird perspective. I know what “institutional racism” is because I am on both sides of it. It is almost never intentional and almost never perpetrated by people that anyone would call “racist”, me included.

I have often found myself in leadership positions or on committees and looked around at the rest of the group. They are all white. Then I think back as to how I got there:

I met someone in a leadership position. They identified with me as having things in common with them. I worked hard. Opportunities came up and those in power suggested my name to fill those opportunities. I rose up the ranks. But I mustn’t forget that I was also white.

To be crystal clear: I wasn’t “Promoted by racists BECAUSE I am white”. I was promoted by good people who are very much NOT racist simply because I am good at what I do and was recognized for it. But I had no additional HIDDEN UNINTENTIONAL BARRIERS TO MY SKILLS GETTING RECOGNIZED because I am white.

When my father visits me and we interact with white people, I now notice it. My father has a somewhat thick accent that gives him away. The white person interacts with me more than my father. Not because that person is racist, but because he is more comfortable with me, another white guy. He knows how to interact with me. I am “the known” while my father is “the unknown”.

Let me be perfectly clear again: None of this is intentional or malicious and it works both ways. If you are a native Spanish speaker and come across another native Spanish speaker, you immediately connect. Same nationality as well? Even bigger connection. You immediately like them a little more because they are like you. We, as social creatures, thrive to be with those like us. A weird thing for me and many other children of immigrants is that we get that feeling in many different cultural situations.

But because of the way I look, I also get to be white. However, those JUST LIKE ME but with different skin color cannot say that. They are “revealed”.

Although this is natural and unintentional, it becomes a problem when one group has all the power and fails to account for (or even see) this bias.

Who is in power?

We are. Those who think we are white. This is a phrase I first saw used by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the book Between the World and Me and it fits perfectly. Many of you, like me, think you are white. Although you may be Caucasian, that is not what makes you white. We were raised to be white. We identify that way and society allows us to be white because we act white and, just as importantly, we look white. And we have unconsciously learned to recognize those who are not white. The easiest way to do that is to see color and facial features.

“But I don’t judge people by the color of their skin!”

Yes you do. We all do. We can’t help it. Some examples:

  • Richard Sherman, an African-American defensive back in the NFL was described as a “thug” for talking trash after a game. Richard Sherman. The man with zero criminal history who graduated from Stanford with a 3.5 GPA and went back to start a master’s degree. Stanford!!! Yeah, he’s a thug all right.
  • I still hear things like, “We are not very good. We have too many white players,” from people that I DO NOT consider racist. I have personally been told things like, “You are smart AND count towards our minority quota,” like it’s some kind of complement.
  • Donald Trump stood in front of America at the Republican National Convention with his five kids from three different mothers and no one thought anything of it (which is the RIGHT response by the way). But if in 2008, Barak Obama had stood in front of America at the Democratic National Convention with five kids from three different mothers do you think the response would have been different?

And let’s look at Barak Obama. What race is he to you? He is considered by most to be America’s first “black president”. His mother, the person who raised him, is a white woman from Kansas of mostly English ancestry…you know, from England. The place where the Anglos met the Saxons. His mother is more white than my mother yet I am white and Barak Obama is not.

What about Bob Marley, the famous reggae singer and champion of worldwide black rights? What race was he to you? His father was a white man; a captain in the Royal Marines from Sussex, England. His father was more white than my father yet I am white and Bob Marley was not. If his father had a child with Barak Obama’s mother, no one would call that kid anything but white.

And finally, what about Tiger Woods? His mother is Thai with Dutch ancestry and his father was black with Native American heritage. Tiger Woods has never self-identified as black. When asked, he said he was “Cablinasian” (Caucasion, Black, Indian (Native American), Asian). But no. To us he is “the black golfer”.

This is all a hold-over on the “one-drop rule“.

But I don’t like the way he wears his pants low showing his underwear. It looks foolish. And their music offends me. And the slang they use, I can’t understand it. I see it all as disrespectful. My dislike of him has nothing to do with race.

First, it is NICE underwear not some ratty “laundry-day” nonsense – like that dark fancy bra worn by white women that is sometimes intentionally visible through a blouse. But you know what? That’s beside the point. HE thinks YOUR skinny jeans look foolish. HE wants to crawl out of his skin when he hears YOU listening to Coldplay. And HE can’t understand YOUR regional lingo and accent either.

But he doesn’t make the rules on what is “acceptable” now does he?

Different people have different cultures and different upbringings. What is comfortable to one group may be uncomfortable to another. But these things don’t make people “good” or “bad” or less valuable members of any society. Should these groups become “more white” just to fit in with those in power, to make them more comfortable? But of course even then, their skin color or facial features give them away anyway…

Beware of the bias

So why is “the Science PT” writing about race? Well, this is actually very consistent with everything else I write about as this has to do with trying to avoid your hidden unknown biases. You don’t correct your biases by acting like you don’t have them. You acknowledge them and account for them intentionally.

As I said, those of us who think we are white are typically in power. When I look at APTA leadership, I see almost exclusively people who think they are white. Yet the membership is more diverse. They are not represented but, statistically, some should appear in leadership positions. But they don’t. This has nothing to do with anything intentional. This has to do with a lack of opportunities.

We know from psychology studies that we all unconsciously allow race, and gender for that matter, to bias our impressions of someone regardless of our own race and gender (people can become conditioned to believe their own kind to be “limited” – this is known as “internalized racism“). Résumés with white sounding names are rated higher than résumés with more “ethnic” sounding names. We need to recognize that we do it and then account for it. (See postscript for more in-depth resources on this.)

And I’m not talking about charity or quotas to promote simply BECAUSE people are non-white. As I was taught from a young age:

We don’t want a handout or a job that we don’t deserve. We just want you to stop blocking us!

Sure, there are obstacles for everyone and it is good to engage in the struggle, but some obstacles are made of tissue paper and some are made of layers of steel…

So how do those of us who think we are white and in positions of power make sure we are not in the way?

  • Compete – Fight to be the best you can be and earn your spot. Ideally this world is a meritocracy and non-whites want to be challenged as much as anyone else with ambition.
  • Join – Stop referring to non-whites as “them”. You only THINK you are white. You were just raised differently and that is not anyone’s fault. “They” are you and you are “they”. Everyone has similarities and differences that extend beyond race.
  • Recognize – Realize that you have a tendency to rush to negative judgements and be dismissive of non-whites. Just like any other normal bias we all need to be aware of it and account for it.
  • Engage – When you meet someone “not like you”, try to find things in common with them instead of looking for someone “more like you”. Remember, just like many of the whites you meet, a non-white may still turn out to be not very bright or just an asshole. Just make an effort to make sure you don’t think that about them simply because they are different from “your tribe”. Treat each unique individual as a unique individual.
  • Network – When you meet someone who is non-white and you find there is a lot to like about them professionally, introduce them to as many people as you can. But do this simply because you are in a position of influence and they are unique and special and should meet more influential people like you – not because you are their “white savior”.
  • Be Empathetic – When non-whites get tired of being dismissed or, I don’t know, getting shot in the streets by law enforcement for minor crimes, and become angry, vocal, and aggressive, those who think they are white should NEVER respond with “Be more respectful” or “Just work harder to better yourselves”. For example, when an athlete who is non-white does something you find extremely disrespectful as a way to draw attention to something unique to their perspective, hold your offense for a second and realize that this is a very effective way to draw attention to a particular issue that may be important to someone who lives in a world different than yours. Someone who is desperate about the situation of “their people” (friends, family, loved ones) and may need your help to change things. Offense is a two-way street. You don’t want history to see you as the person who tried to put Muhammad Ali back in his place…

Also remember, “respect” has two meanings:

Sometimes people use “respect” to mean “treating someone like a person” and sometimes they use “respect” to mean “treating someone like an authority” and sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say “if you won’t respect me I won’t respect you” and they mean “if you won’t treat me like an authority I won’t treat you like a person” and they think they’re being fair but they aren’t, and it’s not okay.

– Stimmy Abby

I have watched non-white friends struggle with perfect résumés just trying to get interviews or volunteer opportunities only to be turned away again and again or told, “Just put it in the pile and we’ll call if we’re interested.” The fact that it is unintentional actually makes it worse. People think that they aren’t the problem and any criticism just falls on deaf ears. Trust me, it makes you want to grab people and scream in their faces, “How can I get you to stop doing it if you don’t even know you’re doing it?!”

In summary…

  • I am ethnically Hispanic
  • I am culturally white
  • Institutional racism is real, thinly hidden, and neither intentional nor malicious
  • Compete, Join, Recognize, Engage, Network, Be Empathetic
  • How can I get you to stop doing it if you don’t even know you’re doing it?!

P.S. If you are in a position of power and would like to take this further, I have some reading assignments:

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is the greatest book I have ever read on the American experience regarding race. That book is where the phrase “those who think they are white” comes from. As of Fall 2016, it is required reading for all incoming freshman at Washington University in St Louis. You should read it as well.

Work Rules by Laszlo Bock is an in depth review of how to systematically remove bias from the human selection process (hiring, promoting, etc) so that you get the most talented people regardless of race, gender, nationality, education level, age, or any other unknown prejudices you or your group may have. It is an open look at how Google handles human resources.

Finally, if you are a “non-white” physical therapist or physical therapist assistant and looking to develop as a leader within the APTA or, more specifically, the Sports Section, please reach out to me. I would like to get everyone together at CSM this upcoming year (2017). People who think they are white can simply continue to contact me as you have always done. I’m always happy to help any good person with drive/ambition.

SIDE NOTE: Tony Mendez, the CIA officer who helped orchestrate the covert extrication of American diplomats during the Iran hostage crisis in the 1970s, was portrayed by Ben Affleck in the 2012 movie Argo. People were upset that a Hispanic man with the last name of “Mendez” was portrayed by a white man! Mendez speaks no Spanish and identifies as white and thought it was completely appropriate that he would be portrayed by a white man. As would I.

Feature Image on this post is “P_people_black_and_white_grey” from Wikicommons.

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