I am sure I’m a sometimes white supremacist. In the States, growing up a “person of color” (what does that even mean?!?) means growing up suffocating in whiteness—a whiteness so beautiful and total its edges are implacable. For many of us, this translates into wanting “to be someone else,” as Morgan Parker suggests in her article for VIDA. Morgan wants to be Nancy Meyers or Diane Keaton (I’m not sure—does it matter?) and I want to be, have wanted to be, a slew of white things. At times consciously and intellectually—a sick fun—and at others not-so-consciously nor intellectually. Just painfully. A hate comes along with the wanting but it’s all there in a sometimes ecstasy-inducing rigmarole that I’ve labored to turn into writing or art. Why I’m writing this down now feels like its own kind of art; an interruption by the way of naming.
In Chronological Order:
Jennifer Hart from Hart to Hart
Jennifer Hart: my namesake. This was the white girl I wanted to be before I was even born; this was the girl my Colombian mother hoped I could be—even before we had considered leaving Colombia. America’s desire for an obliterating whiteness was international, trickling to other nations like a pest—for my family, the infestation came in the form of a TV show where Jennifers could have it all: a career, a husband, a sense of fashion. Could names be a fortune? Could names be power? Did my mom know, even at 18, of the ways that Jennifers pass? The way that these Jennifers signal, especially brown Jennifers, a suffocating universality often coded as white? Signaling, screaming: I am just like you or, better, more pleasingly differential, I want to be like you?
When I was 4, I was sure Wonder Woman was Latina. I had overheard that the actress’s name was Lynda—a Spanish word for pretty. And between that, and her dark hair, I was sure she was Latina. Latina like me. Like my mom. Like every woman in my real life. But I remember feeling particularly fucked because of Wonder Woman’s blue-eye thing. This seemed crucial—the prime indicator of my desire (and, an interesting moment of desire for a trans-state, desire not for one or another but for both/and)—but my aunt Erika had green eyes so maybe my eyes could lighten over time?
I should mention here that Lynda Carter’s mother was Mexican. I found this out recently and it reminded me of Margarita Carmen Cansino, the birth name of actress Rita Hayworth, and how one of the ways white supremacy asserts itself is in its ability to dismantle non-white identity into the aspects that are most commodifiable while casting away the rest. For Hayworth, this manifested in the literal re-figuring of her ethno-marked widow’s peak; it needed to be removed, discarded from her body through cuts and chemicals.
Ages 4-6 = Taylor Dayne and Rick Astley obsessions. Taylor Dayne’s “Tell It To My Heart” was the first thing that made me really feel something. It was, maybe, my first moment of art. During the summers, my mom and I would escape the Puerto Rican swelter by arriving early to movie theaters, where she would let me perform lip-synced versions of this song as a pre-preview. I would throw myself on the floor and feel all the feelings writhing, possessed by her (white?) (girl?) emotions. What’s difficult to admit here is that the late 80s/early 90s were in no shortage of performer role models that weren’t so palpitation-causingly white (and Taylor Dayne certainly isn’t one of these—many have noted the way her voice “sounded black,” speaking of commodification). I could say I also loved Mariah Carey (“Someday” was my jam), but I remember stopping wanting to be her when I overheard older girls in school saying she was part “morenita”—it was such a let down. All I wanted was the whitest, cleanest skin.
A Girl from Beaches
Not the poor one that lives in Atlantic City but the the rich one. With the horses.
The Pink Power Ranger
Truth: there wasn’t much to choose from: Yellow or Pink. Trini or Kimberly. Saber-toothed tiger or Pterodactyl. Kung Fu or gymnastics. Intelligence or charm. And it was through the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers that my post-colonial media consciousness skipped a beat to ideas of difference and otherness—categories that were finally taking shape in my life. It wasn’t so much—god, this hurts to type—that I wanted to be The Pink Ranger; it was that I didn’t want to be The Yellow Ranger. I didn’t give a shit about Kimberly Hart’s character—nothing in me identified with her personality or image, really (yes, she did inspire my short stint as a gymnast; see below) but I could read her superiority in her dominance as the female character; the default. I wanted to be the default.
A Lisa Frank Sticker
One of my biggest role models between the ages of 5-7 was a Lisa Frank sticker.
Stacey McGill from The Baby-Sitters Club
People will say I’m a Kristy. I’m bossy. I’m a planner. I’m often insensitive to others’ needs cuz stuff’s gotta get done. But between ages 8 to 9 I really wanted to be Stacey McGill. The equivalent of the BSC’s Pink Power Ranger. She was the fashionable New Yorker with divorced parents and diabetes. DIABETES! UGH! I wanted all of that so bad. Ann M. Martin’s white supremmy exo-descriptions of Claudia Kishi’s “beautiful dark almond-shaped” eyes intimated that this was the BSC girl I was supposed to identify with (or maybe the African American baby-sitter from out of town who spoke Spanish and did ballet—her name was…). These descriptors said “hint, hint: this is the diversity, this is you.” But I railroaded past those signifiers cuz my heart was in it for Stacey and no one was going to tell me who to love, who to obsess over, who to pretend to be when I looked in the mirror.
She was so good. So talented. I dunno. Fell off the beam in ’92 and my heart was broken. I’d let everyone down.
After we moved to the States, my parents sent me to one of those grizzly summer day camps where the poor kids from the neighborhood spent 12 hours a day stuffed into a gymnasium sweating together. Girls playing “Bloody Mary” in the bathroom and making gaudy jewelry into the shapes of dongs. I kinda loved it. One of the opening activities was to decorate your summer camp white Haynes t-shirt with your name and age and various things you liked. On my t-shirt, I proudly wrote my age (10) and beneath it in pink bubble letters wrote out, “Jennifer Tanner.” This is how bad I wanted to be Stephanie Tanner. Or, would Danny have me as his other daughter? I wish I could tell you I consciously knew how delusional this gesture was and that I just thought I could get away with it—did my counselors even know my name?—but it felt so natural to me. Like, it was totally acceptable (expected!) to overwrite myself, whitewash myself. This wasn’t assimilation—this was a a fully welcomed obliteration. How rude.
Saved by the Bell offered me a bevy of girl tropes to look up to—the smart one (Jessie), the fashionable one/black one (Lisa!), the tomboy (Tori!)—and, what’s more, ethnic tropes (brownish, brown, brownest) too! My world was catching up to me—trying to thwart me from what it was I really wanted—to be central, default, to be the original. I should have, by this age, as I was starting to feel something of the fuckery of the world, known better but I still just wanted to be the most consumable thing in the room: Kelly Kapowski. Her objecthood was so well-defined, made clearer, in fact, by Jessie’s second-wave feminism. And so, yes, my brain said be Jessie but my heart still said Kelly. Something of the intersectional begins here though, cuz I didn’t just want to be Kelly, I also wanted to kiss Kelly. I wanted to be Kelly Kapowski kissing myself in a loop of gratification and self-satisfaction. This felt perfect. This felt complete.
Most of my friends wanted to be Angela Chase—I wanted to be Rayanne. Was I starting to sense the impossibility of my whiteness? And trying to inch closer via class signifiers? Maybe I couldn’t be the rich white girl (hadn’t they all been not just white but also rich?), but could I be her lower-middle class best friend?? I liked Rayanne’s comfortable, non-threatening dysfunction. OK—there were strong moments of connection with Rickie that would flare up in me like a rash and this made me feel weird and mad—I remember a (white) friend in school saying I was Rickie cuz I was “Spanish.” And so I pushed those feelings of connection down and told myself it was Rayanne that I wanted to be like. Rayanne was an artist like me. Not Rickie. Never Rickie.
More specifically Lara Croft in the video game Tomb Raider II and even more specifically the tutorial section, “Croft Manor.” This was the dream! Lara has a mansion and a creepy butler that follows her around with coffee and tea while she works out and trains! Yes! Please! Me!! Yes! My uncles and my male cousins would spend hours playing Tomb Raider—”making fun” of how she climbed walls—but I liked/envied the attention. Okay—so there’s a full, inaccurate collapse of white with rich in this fantasy—and I can’t tell what I wanted more and how I could categorize those desires in my heart but Lara’s life in that empty mansion was starting to echo something of another desire…
Soon after purchasing Jagged Little Pill (my first CD), my family moved back to Puerto Rico, and losing America—with its overt systems for gratifying my white fantasies—was almost as painful as realizing that I could never be Alanis Morissette. My eyes hadn’t lightened and turned blue. My skin was, inevitably, brown not just “tan” as I had sometimes said to friend’s older relatives—grandparents who asked if I had stayed out too long in the sun. And my desire to be Alanis Morissette was (finally), possibly, identified as… problematic? Returning to the island was a reminder that I wasn’t and could never be white. And the moments of deep, comforting identification—among people who looked like me—was a prickly surprise. As a consolation prize from the music goddesses, I was soon introduced to Pies Descalzos by Shakira—who a magazine described as “the Latina Alanis Morissette” both so emotional and bitter but again, in my world, Alanis was the default; Shakira was the variation.
During a particularly vulnerable month the year I turned 15, I saw a trailer for the 90’s movie Jade and decided I would now be called Jade. My family had just returned to Centreville, Virginia from our second stint in Puerto Rico and I suppose my obscene desperation to be white was at a crisis point. I was back in the States—morose for reasons I couldn’t locate and unable to shake off an accent. My name change felt similar to my Jennifer Tanner thing but ratcheting it up a notch or two—a little bit Hayworth, actually. When my new teachers called on me the first day, I made up a lie about how Jade was my middle name and how could it have gotten left off? 🙁 I didn’t tell my mom or dad until kids from school called the house asking for Jade and I was just like that’s what they call me, I dunno. My parents didn’t argue—though clearly they were taken aback—and just replied, “Okay, ‘Jade.'”
I carried around a copy of Sontag’s On Photography during most of my years at the University of Chicago—I was depressed for reasons that are clearer to me now. Some of those included being brown and poor and surrounded by people and (university) systems who seemingly neither cared, nor cared to understand, how this could be a factor in someone’s life. I’m not sure Susan Sontag herself would have cared—I sometimes envision her Lara Croft-style, alone in her ivory mansion. Is that so off? When classmates found out I was Colombian, some asked which consulate my parents worked for—they didn’t. This fantasy of being a rich, white, intellectual is complicated. What I wanted most, by that point, was to be taken seriously as a person with thoughts—something Sontag herself writes about wanting and struggling for—and that impulse felt like a kind of useful vision. I wanted to be part of a canon. But I couldn’t imagine a pathway, as a woman, that included not being Susan Sontag as “Susan Sontag.”
Next up: All the (white) boys I wanted to be when I was growing up…