My family moved to New Mexico so I would have the chance to grow up somewhere diverse. We had been living in Salt Lake City, Utah and my parents wanted me to have the chance to live somewhere people were something other than Mormon. So when my dad was offered a job in New Mexico, we headed to the state of green chile and roadrunners.
What we didn’t expect was that New Mexico’s diversity, perhaps like diversity anywhere, was limited. We moved to find something other than white, and found a community that was white and Hispanic–but little else.
Growing up, I remember that there was not a single black kid in my grade at high school. I think the grade above me might have had one black student, and that was a “big deal.”
Similarly, though there was a small group of Asian students at my high school they were known as precisely that: “the Asians.” Leave it to high school students to forget “Chinese,” “Korean,” “Taiwanese,” and on, and instead only say “Asian.” They were the nerdy kids, you know the stereotype: good at science, bad at dating.
There were so few of them, that they were token examples of their culture. As white and latin@ high school students, we assumed that whatever one of them personally did was what all of them collectively did. That if one kid liked spicy food, all Asians liked spicy food; if one did well on a test, all Asians did well on tests. If that’s not the definition of a stereotype, I don’t know what is.
Despite the lack of black and Asian culture, I didn’t realize I was missing out. After all, this was New Mexico. You know, Mexico, only newer. We were the epitome of Hispanic culture in the U.S. Everyone ordered huevos rancheros at their favorite Mexican restaurant, went to Zozobra in September, and hiked in the foothills of the Sandia mountains.
Though I am white, I’ve always felt like I had a decent understanding of Hispanic culture. I spoke Spanish, ordered my chicken flautas Christmas (with red and green chile), and spent more time in Catholic churches than entirely necessary for a non-Christian. It wasn’t until I moved away from New Mexico to start college that I realized I had been missing out on something.
No matter how well I understood the culture I had grown up in, I had missed out on something huge: an understanding of other cultures beyond stereotypes.
When I moved into my first-year dorm at college, I met my first roommate. She was mixed-race and of black descent, and although it didn’t hit me in the moment I later realized that she was one more black person than had been in my entire grade in high school. Living with her became a crash-course in breaking-down stereotypes.
Early in our first year, we found ourselves coincidentally at the same art exhibit opening. Alongside a few paintings, the centerpiece of the show was a series of sculptures of people’s hair. As the artist described her work, she mentioned wanting to do a collection about hair because, as a black woman, she was so tired of people asking to touch hers.
I spotted my roommate across the room laughing at that comment, and I straightened my back. No one had ever told me not to touch a black woman’s hair. Were there other unspoken rules about race that I had been missing out on? I was suddenly very glad I had never asked to touch my roommate’s hair, and suddenly very worried that I had asked to do something else.
That was far from my last experience learning about race in college. Unlike how I had thought of “the Asians” at my high school, I learned to stop falling into the harmful trap of assuming that what one person did stood in for everyone in their culture.
Just as I should have stopped using “Asian” as substitute for “Thai” or “Korean,” I started to see that “black” meant more than one singular experience. For my roommate, it meant being mixed. For a classmate, it meant being an immigrant from Nigeria. For a friend, it meant going home each summer to her family in the Caribbean. My experience of other cultures quickly catapulted from tokenization to representation.
I’m eternally grateful for my experience growing up in New Mexico and the insight it gave me into a culture other than my own. I’ve lived in Spanish speaking countries since moving away from home, and always felt a little closer to the culture because of it. Yet, I wish I had grown up somewhere less binary in terms of racial communities and more multicultural.
What I wish I had known as a kid, is that you can always learn. Thanks to the internet and libraries everywhere, you can make up in reading what you lack in personal experience. After all, your friends are never responsible for representing their entire culture–whether there be one or many of them. And should you move somewhere new, you can get to know people from all sorts of backgrounds other than your own.