Who I Am? The Ultimate White Girl Question

Who is a white girl? At this time of year, we become the poster children for Pumpkin Spice Lattes and infinity scarves. But this, of course, is a caricature. And I mean, really, who doesn't dig a PSL? Yes I will happily sip one as I listen to Gangsta Party on my way to preschool pick-up.

I write a lot about race and culture. And inevitably, when a post on this topic goes live, it's not too long before someone gently points out that I misspoke about race.

My husband is of European decent, which explains his light, white skin. Um... Europeans are not all white.

Most of our friends are American or Latino. Um... those two categories are not mutually exclusive. (So true.)

I'm American! Um... are you referring to Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Paraguay, or Chili?

So how do I - white girl - identify? I think one of the challenges facing white folks who desire to talk about race is the real difficulty in naming our own cultural background. What am I supposed to call myself?

To say I'm "white" can dismiss Latino, Middle Eastern, or other ethnicities with members who also identify as white. To say I'm "American" may be more indicative of my cultural background, but it doesn't acknowledge the reality of white privilege and is confusing in a global context with both North and South Americans.

Saying I'm "United States-ian" is not a thing in English. I often use "Southern," but that can still mix up with the actual global South. And both of these labels again include a wide array of skin tones and lived experiences.

Sometimes I say "Georgian," but that's rarely used and hello, there's a country called Georgia So that doesn't really work. And maybe my last ditch effort is "5th generation German," but nothing feels further from my lived experience.

Of course, no one word can pin point my exact cultural background.

I am an olive-skinned white girl who grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee. At 14, we moved to a small town in Kentucky with a high school that boasted its own tobacco barn and considered becoming an "agricultural magnet school."

After my freshman year of college at a private, Christian university, I moved to downtown Atlanta to live and work in an almost entirely black environment. Then, I moved to Nashville and attended another private, Christian university with diverse friends from all over the world. After graduation, I moved into a retirement home for a year (things seemed to be winding down, I suppose) before starting grad school at the University of Kentucky.

Then, I moved straight to Filipinotown in Los Angeles before settling in my South Central LA neighborhood that was 70% Latino and 30% black. There, I married an undocumented, white Guatemalan. Soon after, we moved back to Atlanta into a predominately black neighborhood, except for a few months when we lived in Buenos Aires. And for the last few years, we've been home in Atlanta and attending a Hispanic church with a significant Cuban presence.

No one word can sum that up. Not to mention the fact that this narrative ignores class, religion, and gender. It also cannot include all the other cultural touches along the way: when I worked for a predominately Jewish summer camp in Vermont, our Kiwi roommate, or sitting inside a one-room apartment eating boiled pigs' feet on someone's bed.

Of course, this is the part where we're sometimes tempted to throw out the baby with the bathwater. This is why we shouldn't use labels! They are ineffectual and only serve to divide us! We're all part of the human race! We shouldn't talk about culture at all!

Part of this response is our fierce individualism in the U.S. We want to think of ourselves as defined solely by our own experiences, our own thoughts, and our own accomplishments. We want to feel like we "poofed" into existence devoid of privilege or hardship, starting on a clean slate in a fair world. I understand that temptation, but it's simply not true.

The reality is that few of us feel like our one to two word labels are a true descriptor of our entire cultural paradigm. And we're right. Still, language is used as a shortcut to help us have a starting place to understand each other and learn from each other.

I will still identify as a "white American," even if it is a flawed label. Because while it may not describe my exact, individual experience, it does help to acknowledge my collective experience in the world.

It tells you that English is likely my first language and that I had access to at least a 12th grade education. It means I can vote in one of the most watched countries in the world. And it also suggests I probably did not experience persistent, direct racism growing up.

I will keep writing about race and culture, even if I stumble on the words to use sometimes. Words are important to me, and I work to use language that promotes dignity. But I also encourage us all to be gentle with one another as vocabulary proves inadequate and we seek to define ourselves and understand others.

We all have a unique story to tell. And we are all part of a larger story happening all around us. And sometimes that's all just a little tricky to explain. Okay, off to find a pumpkin-flavored beverage!

What "label" do you most identify with? And feel free to share your paragraph-long cultural identity as well! You know I love it!

What NOT To Do: 3 Cautions for Monolingual Parents in Bilingual Families

Tips for monolingual parents raising bilingual kids

From the moment that first test read "pregnant," it didn't take long before I was ordering books on Amazon. Of course, I skipped the standard topics and read next to nothing on childbirth, attachment parenting, or sleep training.

Nope. I was sitting on a plane, cracking open 7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child. I was discovering the OPOL method and other acronyms related to giving one's child the gift of two languages.

Friends asked me about my birth plan, but I thought nothing of it. Birth was just a means to an end. Language development and raising a bicultural baby were what occupied by parenting fantasies.

The only problem? Well, I don't actually speak two languages. I would be relying 100% on my Guatemalan husband Billy to make all my bilingual baby dreams come true.

Maybe it's because I know what it's like to be monolingual in a multicultural world. I nod and smile in Spanish-speaking circles (while running through approximately 43 crazy thoughts), and I freak out at church when they say my name into any kind of microphone.

I think these experiences contribute to why it's so important to me that we pass on both Spanish and English to our kids. Of course, we've been trying our hand at this for a while now, and I've learned a few things as the English-only-speaking mom in a bilingual-ish household. Here's some things you should not do.

Badger the Bilingual

The first year of our daughter's life, I repeated two phrases. "Why are crying?" (Which almost 5 years later continues to be a mystery. Oh, you dropped a piece of popcorn on the floor? I thought maybe your finger had been cut off based on this reaction.

My second go-to was "Speak more Spanish!" Almost anytime I heard my husband talking to our infant in English, I would utter this phrase. I tried polite. I tried exasperated. I tried sing-songy. It never really seemed to work.

What I learned is that it's lonely talking to a baby. Especially before they can really understand or engage you. Naturally, our survival instinct was to make jokes or talk "for her" for each other's amusement. Billy often spoke to her in English because he was really talking for my benefit. He wanted me to hear him bless her, sweet talk her, or mock her. (Parents of the year!)

That first year was so intense, and we were learning how to be a parenting team. My constant nagging for him to exclude me held no appeal.

Take Over

This strategy is the second cousin of the first. But when I wanted to stop begging, I tried more "subtle" tactics to remind Billy to speak Spanish. I just went for it. That's right. I can get that bilingual ball rolling!

Except I really can't.

Taking over the bilingual education can be an ill-advised strategy for the monolingual parent. For me, it involved a lot of Spanglish or just trying to roll my r's in the middle of English words.

I finally recognized that I needed to provide the space for my husband to take some ownership over our child's Spanish language learning. Me doing it was just going to confuse everyone.

As time has gone on, he has become significantly more invested. He loves hearing her try to ask him questions in Spanish. And as he witnesses our kids struggle to communicate fluently with Spanish-speaking relatives, he has a renewed sense of personal passion.

Complain About Being Left Out

This is one of my favorite things to do! After I badger my husband to speak more Spanish, I like to freak out when he does. (He loves this game, by the way.)

One of my sincere insecurities from the moment I read that book on the plane was that I would feel like an outsider in my own home. In my imaginary future, Billy and our teenagers are sitting around the dinner table, joking in Spanish and throwing their heads back in raucous laughter. I am pushing peas around my plate.

The first time my daughter spoke her first, uncoerced mixed-language sentence, that same fear resurfaced. But time has helped me recognize how important bilingualism is for them and how it will likely always be an uphill battle, so I need to stay committed.

And I find renewed motivation to pursue my own bilingualism. Hearing it at home and church has definitely helped. But of course, I still find myself just randomly shouting out words like "candela!" because it sounds pretty and confirms the idea that you just add an "a."

Raising a bilingual, bicultural has been a rich source of joy for us. It hasn't been without its challenges, but I will always encourage other families to go for it. And if you're a monolingual parent gently encouraging your bilingual spouse to teach your kids, I hope these tips help.

A version of this post originally appeared in on the bilingual parenting resource site SpanglishBaby, which is no longer active. 

5 Must-Reads for Hispanic Heritage Month {Round-Up}

Image credit: Texas Military Forces

Did you know that's it's Hispanic Heritage Month? It took me a while to get used to the September 15 - October 15 schedule that is HHM. But after almost eight years of marriage to a chapin, Guatemala's Independence Day (Sept 15) now pops up on our shared Google calendar.

Guatemala shares her Independence Day with several other Central American countries: El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. And Mexico's Independence Day is the very next day. It now makes a lot of sense to me why we kick of HHM on September 15.

In celebration, I've created this round-up with some great articles and resources around the web. Enjoy the list, and feel free to add your own favorites in the comments!

1. 18 Major Moments In Hispanic History That All Americans Need To Know - Do you know when the U.S. extended citizenship to Puerto Rico? Or who the first Hispanic U.S. Senator was? There's likely something all of us have to learn about the Latino contributions to history.

2. Hispanic Heritage Month Activities for Kids - There's all kinds of goodies in this resource post. Free coloring pages of country flags, making paper fiesta flowers, and music crafts, to name a few.

3. Celebrate Your Hispanic Heritage with These 17 Dishes - Like to eat your way through the holidays? Try making Guatemalan Banana Bread, Sopa de Arroz, or Steamed Yuca with Mojo.

4. 8 Badass Latinas Every American Woman Should Thank - You may see some familiar and unfamiliar names in this list, but I always love learning about women pioneers and leaders.

5. Hispanic Heritage: Learning About Immigration Through Books - This post features a middle-grade novel that incorporates immigration, but there's also links to more kids' books on the topic. Finally, don't miss the HUGE giveaway at the end. You can still enter to win!

What have you been reading this month? Share your favorite links for Hispanic Heritage Month in the comments!

A Life with Subtitles. All rights reserved. © Maira Gall.