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A Few Thoughts on “Playing Both Sides”

My mom’s a Puerto Rican, my dad’s a Jew , and I grew up in The Bronx. Last week on LinkedIn, Linda Espinosa Valencia reposted a TikTok of storyteller Christopher Rivas talking about how easily, when it comes to racist dynamics, brown people can play “both sides.” To Christopher Rivas’ observation I add, and when they’re mixed, they can play even harder.

In elementary school, I was put in the top class, which was what everyone called the talented and gifted program. In a neighborhood that was racially and ethnically diverse, the top class was overwhelmingly white and Jewish. At this early age, I’d received my first institutional memo – white people are more talented and more gifted – so it didn’t take much to figure out which side I was gonna play.

White people don’t generally acknowledge what is required to be “white,” but everyone else does. Even though I didn’t have the word “assimilate” to describe what I’d be doing, I knew I’d be doing it.

White girls don’t wear hoops, sexy clothes, and name plate necklaces – neither did I. Smart white girls don’t have Bronx accents – at the first opportunity, I took speech lessons and flattened mine to talk like a newscaster (it’s called Mid-Atlantic). I went to high school in Manhattan and ignored the kids in my neighborhood. I went to Vassar College and made little effort to connect with its few students of color. I decided to go to grad school and enrolled in The University of Chicago Divinity School.

By the time I arrived in Chicago, I’d started to feel the impact of how hard I was working to fit in. I longed to reconnect with some part of me that felt real, so I studied Caribbean religious traditions. At the time, becoming a religious history professor who knew about Santeria seemed like the best way to safely make it in the white world and still acknowledge my ancestry. But my immersion in whiteness, and my compulsion to suppress any real connection to non-whiteness, was taking a toll on my mental health. After little more than a year, I left school.

Despite my lack of Ph.D., being a white-passing girl in the white world widened my horizons and granted me more privilege and social capital than I would have gotten had I stayed in the Bronx. As much as I’d wanted to climb my way out, though, the ladder now seemed to be leading nowhere. I’d succeeded in looking and sounding the part but by the time I got married I was lost in my role. Within two years of becoming a mother, lingering anxieties about my identity combined with undiagnosed PTSD and severe post-partum depression knocked me flat; I could no longer keep moving through the world wearing that mask.

Years of self-examination and a whole staircase of baby steps were necessary to fully recover and make sense of what had happened. During this same period, concepts such as white supremacy, colonialism, colorism, and generational trauma were gaining traction and, through the power of this new vocabulary, I began to understand my individual experience in the context of a collective history.

Fast forward a few years and, in 2017, I began a new career as a book editor: unapologetically identifying as a mixed Latina, openly positioning myself against racist institutions and structures, and no longer trying to claim a higher rung on the white ladder, I took a new side.

The self-induced trauma of having suppressed my own voice left me with a calling to nurture, amplify, and protect voices that might otherwise be silenced or even silence themselves so I founded Represent! with the explicit mission to support writers of color.

It’s been more than five years.

Simply put, my work with emerging writers (whether you call them racialized, BIPOC, people of color, or Global Majority) is one of the great blessings of my life. By speaking up, each poet, memoirist, or thought leader moves us closer to a world built not on the struggle between opposing sides, but on justice, healing, and liberation for all sides. It is a movement I am honored to be part of.

As much as I sometimes regret it, I will never again have a Bronx accent. As much as I dream of it, I may never be fluent in Spanish. And, yes, I do still pass for white when I’m walking down the street. But the voice I’ve found through empowering writers is authentically mine and the commitment I have to their voices is as real as I get.

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