This is me:
I’m 5’4″, 23 1/2 years old, brown/brown. I’m totally blind without my contacts, my face gets covered with freckles when it’s sunny and I’m engaged in a lifelong battle against my eyebrows, which repeatedly attempt to annex the entire upper half of my face. I get told sometimes that I look Italian, or maybe Spanish, but my family heritage is straight-up German-Hungarian Jewish (and 1/8th mystery. That’s the fun part of me). The idea of whether or not I “looked American,” though, had never really occurred to me until I moved to Colombia, where I am told at least once a week that I don’t.
I realize, of course, that this mindset comes from a position of privilege. The U.S. is certainly not a perfect racial and ethnic melting pot of equality or “colorblindness” or whatever your chosen nomenclature for that impossible ideal may be. I’ve never been stopped in traffic for no good reason, nor had someone speak to me slowly and loudly because they assume by looking at me that English is not my first language. People don’t ask me where I’m from, or where my parents are from, and expect to hear me say the name of another country. At home, at least, I obviously do look American** enough that nobody gives my citizenship a second thought. I recognize that this is a privilege that many other citizens don’t have, and that’s a whole different and far more important battle — but it’s not the one I’m involved in right here, right now. Right here, right now, I’m trying to explain to people (and kind of to myself) why exactly I get so offended when people insist that I don’t look like an American.
Being told I don’t sound like an American is a compliment — it means my Spanish is good enough that people mistake me for a foreigner from another, less verbally-embarrassing country. Argentina, sometimes, because of the accent I picked up there, or Brazil, because I don’t sound like a native Spanish speaker. I’m more than fine with this. Not having people know right off the bat when I speak that I’m a gringa is both a testament to the fact that my Spanish isn’t filled with horrible flat vowels and overpronounced h’s, and it makes my life a bit easier in terms of not standing out or getting ripped off. Go ahead and think I’m from Portugal when I’m speaking, but once you know I’m from the States, please don’t tell me I look wrong.
My issue with this has little to do with any sort of desire to assert my American-ness all over the place. After all, I am not exactly the world’s most “hoo-rah!” patriotic Yankee. For starters, I’m from the People’s Republic of Eastern Massachusetts. I was raised on skepticism, grew up under the idealism-crushing Bush administration, have never watched NASCAR or “American Idol” and I don’t even eat burgers. But there are legitimate reasons I’m proud of where I’m from, and it will always be an inherent part of my identity. I certainly wouldn’t choose to identify otherwise unless it were for my own safety (there are some countries where it’s just better to be Canadian).
But more than the slight to my ego, it’s upsetting to me that the idea of what an American looks like is so narrowly defined as the “gringo” look: tall, white, with blond hair and blue eyes (apparently, they think we’re all Nordic). Because the thing is, very few Americans actually look like this. We (or at least I) take pride in the fact that there is no distinct American look, except for maybe wearing t-shirts all the time, and it saddens me that the entire, amazing cultural/ethnic/racial range of what an American might be is almost immediately negated when you travel to another country. You don’t look like this; therefore, you can’t possibly be this.
Obviously, people’s understanding or concept of a foreign culture they’ve never experienced is based entirely on the information available to them — or rather, the information they choose to absorb. I encountered this plenty of times last year while trying to explain to people at home that it was in fact highly unlikely that I would be kidnapped by the FARC, or listened to the tenth person in a row make the same stupid joke about drug dealers. But considering how tuned in many Colombians are to American pop culture, it’s kind of astonishing that their image of the North American is strictly limited to the gringo. Movies have their own bucket of issues with minority representation, but it’s not like every single person present in U.S. pop culture or media looks like that. The president doesn’t. Angelina Jolie doesn’t. Selena Gomez certainly doesn’t (I know, I know. I’ve been spending too much time with middle-schoolers). There are tons of high-profile Americans who don’t remotely fit into that mold — and yet, it’s still assumed here that that’s what we all look like.
I don’t think for a second that this image of the blond American gringo exists only in Colombia. It’s definitely present in a lot of countries — it’s just that I happen to be living here, so here is where I’m encountering it. There’s not much that can be done, really, to change it — when people have an image or stereotype fixed in their minds, it’s a hell of an uphill battle to change it (hi, all my parents’ friends who are still convinced I’m going to die here!). All I can do at the moment is keep looking like this, and hope that some people notice.
** for the purpose of this post, I’m using “American” to mean ” a person from the U.S.” I realize that isn’t technically accurate, and I’m sorry for the nationalcentrism, but there isn’t an English word for “estadounidense” and I refuse to write “person from the U.S.” every time because efficiency. It’s a problem, but it’s not a battle I’m prepared to take on right now. Please forward your complaints to the people in charge of the English language.