Tuesday, February 9, 2010

First Impressions

By Kelsey

After the Augsburg All-Nighter last weekend, a couple of friends and I were hanging out in the dorms. There was a fairly constant stream of people coming in and out, many of whom we had never met before. At one point we were introduced to two guys. They immediately smiled and said "Hey" to me, then as they looked at the faces of the two friends I was there with, they adjusted their greeting to an enthusiastic "Hola" followed by an awkward loss for words. Apparently 'hola' was the extent of their Spanish knowledge. After exchanging an understanding "look" my friends announced "We are not Mexican. But Kelsey is", intentionally leaving the two guys confused and uncomfortable.

There was a lot going on during this interaction, most of which requires a fair amount of reading between the lines as well as some context, So I'll break it down a bit :)


Seems like an innocent enough greeting right? The guys who used it may have even thought they were showing how accepting and cultured they were by greeting my friends in "their language". The issue here is less about their attempt to utilize the only Spanish word they knew and more about how quickly they needed to put them in to a "ethnicity box" and how all-encompassing that label was. It was clear that the first thing they saw when they looked at my friends was a flashing neon sign that said "LATINO". Later I thought to myself that I should have played along and greeted the two guys with a friendly "Hej" or some other European hello, following their theme of greeting people in their presumed native language.

"We are not Mexican, but Kelsey is".

My friends felt the need to point out that there weren't Mexican for a couple of reasons (neither of which is because they have a problem with the country or it's people):

1. They aren't. One is from Guatemala and the other is from Columbia. Both of those countries have distinct identities their own history/culture/traditions. Much in the same way that many people view Africa as a country rather than a continent made up of 47 separate countries, there are people in the U.S. who assume every Latino is from Mexico.

2. They are well aware of the negative stereotypes towards Mexicans and Mexican Americans that exist in the U.S. and didn't want those assumptions to be directed towards them. As a white person, I never have to wonder if someone I just met is questioning my citizenship status, my ability to speak English, or wondering whose job I stole.

The last part of the comment where they said "but Kelsey is", was a joke in reference to the amount of time I spend in Mexico (which is a lot!).

I think this interaction really exemplifies how a comment that can seem so harmless to the person saying it can come across as insensitive and culturally incompetent to the person they are speaking to. The word "hola" communicated a lot more than just "hello" in this case. Even if the guys who said it had the purest of intentions and "didn't mean anything by it"(classifying them as 'fair weather liberals according to Merton's typology of discrimination*) they immediately pushed my friends into defense mode. It's one of those scenarios where intentions are pretty irrelevant since the end result (ie: how they made the other people feel) is the same anyway.

"Reducing Prejudice." Minority Studies. Delmar College, 17 Aug. 2007. Web. 9 Feb. 2010.www.delmar.edu/socsci/rlong/race/far-03.htm.


  1. Hi Kelsey!

    This is Annie, writing in from Cuernavaca, where we have been talking about some of the exact same things!

    It is very compelling how you analyze such a small interaction as "Hola" vs. "Hey", but as you say, these are the interactions that are so telling of our experiences and perspectives. Identity is such an interesting aspect of humanity...does it matter more how we identify ourselves or how others identify us? In class here we kind of decided that how we usually identify ourselves is what we see reflected back to us by others. That's why this interaction was so important, because you and your friends didn't want to be mis-identified. No one does... it is something we all need to work on being responsive to.

    Here in Mexico, most of our group is easily identified as "extranjera, guera, gringa..." and we hear these cat-calls, "piropos," every day. We are treated with higher regard by a lot of local businesses and people. It's hard for me to deal with, because my identity as a white woman has been established here for me, but without my input. One of the main stereotypes is that we have come to Mexico to party and have sex... It's much harder to foster pure relationships when so many stereotypes have been set up on both sides. I hope our group will de-bunk some of these prevailing perceptions by showing our interest in learning the culture, the language, the history, and sharing ours.

  2. Kelsey, I appreciated your blog post because I have encountered similar experiences. I almost always get labeled as a Mexican, when Im actually Colombian. I've been to Chipotle a few times and every time I go up to order food Im greeted in Spanish. This has a positive and negative affect for me. The positive is that I am glad that people speak spanish to me because, to my understanding, it means they still identify my features as being latina. On the negative side, well, I cant respond. I have minimal experience with speaking spanish. (which I hope to change!!) Once I tell someone that I don't speak spanish it turns into another ordeal. Those who speak spanish say to me "Aw, how can you call yourself a latina, but you don't speak spanish?" I reply that I was adopted from Colombia at a young age, and only took a few years of spanish in high school.

    Also, this statement you made "Both of those countries have distinct identities their own history/culture/traditions. Much in the same way that many people view Africa as a country rather than a continent made up of 47 separate countries..." Is SO SO TRUE!!!

    -Alicia Fowler

  3. Boonchan Khamda:
    Great story, I can see when people take offense to what others say. Just today at a show I had an Asian guy ask me a question and he was shocked to hear me speak. He said to me "you look like you just got off the boat but your English is perfect." I get this a lot when people hear me speak because they assume I have broken English. I can understand that the gestures they made may be offensive. For Asians we have so many of us with different languages. I've been greeted in Chinese, Japanese, and Hmong non of which is my native language. I've gotten use to it now when someone says anything about my culture, I just correct them and explain the differences. Hopefully one day I get to meet the one person who guesses my nationality correctly. =)