Frankly, I was shocked that this woman had had this experience. Not because I questioned whether it was true, but because I thought I was the only one this happens to on a regular basis. See, all the rest of my (mostly) white family is in San Juan where skin color and your ability to be Puerto Rican is not questioned.
Growing up in various places in the United States, my mother had to actually train me, like a social graces version of an EMT, on how to handle the situation when a person would tell me, "But you don't look Puerto Rican." Like a good girl, I was taught to say, "We come in all colors." We practiced it. I memorized it.
Now, being an amateur philosopher since birth, I'd like to take all you readers through what goes on in my head when I (still) hear this.
First, I wonder how the person saying this could possibly feel comfortable commenting on the skin color of another person TO HER FACE. When he/she is presented to a black man or woman, should I expect them to say, "Wow, you're really black, aren't you?" I mean, what is the cutoff here? Is it one of those ridiculous societal rules where I'm not qualified to be spared racist comments because I'm white? On the other hand, I wonder how it would feel if instead of a rude and small-minded comment, I just get an awkward silence where I can actually hear the inner thoughts of the person saying, "Don't mention anything about her being white, don't mention anything about her being white..." as I'm sure many black people experience. I guess the real question is why the hell do we still care what color skin people have??
After I've taken the person in and wonder what kind of upbringing this person had, I then start to play a few scenarios in my head, along the lines of, "What the hell do I say to this?" There's always a few options available to me. I can say, "Yeah, whattya know." That's the most inoffensive comment toward the other person that I can think of. It doesn't say anything at all; it's a throw-away line. However, here's what's wrong with that line: it compromises my reality and my feelings, it doesn't broaden anyone's horizons, and it comes from a place of weakness. Don't get me wrong, I've likely used it on occasions when I'm just too tired to be open-minded and have to take care of the other person's feelings. But it's seldom that I use it. To me, it's like saying, "Yes, massah." It's bowing down to ignorance to let it pass and flourish.
The other category of options that I can say are along the lines of: "We come in all colors," "Native Spanish-speakers are just like all native English-speakers in that they all look and sound totally different from one another," "Latin America is a very big part of the world, full of all different races and creeds." Once recently, at a networking event for women CEOs, a woman said to me, "I would never think you were Spanish" (another common one). I chose to say to her, "Why would you, I spoke perfect American English to you. The thing is, I also have the capability to speak perfect Spanish if I so choose." I then continued to eat my baby carrot and drink my wine, and waited for a reaction. I believe her reaction after that actually was, "I would just never think you were Spanish." I could try to tell myself that she was just drunk, but that would again be leaving room for ignorance to flourish.
The point of all this is that I now ask you to participate: please envision yourself in the shoes of this person to whom I've just told these things. I do this naturally as an actor; it's rather fun. It's the "what if" game. What if you were just told that Latinos come in all colors, and this is a hell of a shock to you? I can think of a few feelings that I might feel in that position. Anger and shame are the top ranking emotions. Anger that this person is calling me ignorant. Shame that it's true. Neither of these make for a pleasant first introduction. You can see how for years, I was quite unpopular at cocktail parties. Recently, I've developed a method for tackling these most awkward of circumstances that seem to happen a few times a week. I follow any of the above comments with a hearty laugh. I've discovered that I have a fabulous infectious laugh that can easily break the ice. In this way, the other person's feelings aren't hurt.
But I can't say what kind of toll it takes on me.
Now, just for fun, some excerpts from my life (and these didn't even make it into the movie, which means there's a lot more where these came from!):
1. At my corporate job recently, someone who works in Legal telling me, "You're the whitest Puerto Rican I know." I'm just gonna leave my comments to that up to your imagination.
2. Meeting one of my husband's best friends for the first time, and her putting on some rap on the radio to make me feel at home. I requested Chopin.
3. After having a lovely brunch with a few friends who work in academia, I bring up the subject of my film and its story. My professor friend whom I've known for years says to me, "I didn't know you were Puerto Rican! What are you gonna f*ck me up now?" He teaches political science at a respectable university.
4. At a Q&A with John Leguizamo, him saying how much he loves to dance because it's in his Latin blood. Me turning to my husband saying, "I hate salsa. I prefer ballet. I need the structure."
5. An agent once telling me when I asked to be submitted to a role on a soap opera: "Sorry, Caucasians only."
Okay, that last one made it into the screenplay. Oh my, I've given something away! Guess you'll just have to see the film for more of my Greatest Hits!