August 27, 2018

Transformational Leaders Program: finding strength in my identity as a person of color

This entry was written by alum, Erika VanDyke. Erika is a graduate of the 2015-2016 cohort. This entry was originally published in her blog.

One of the first things Paul Doyle from Inclusive Performance Strategies said to us when he was explaining where our Transformational Leader Program (TLP) sessions were going to be held was that sites are chosen for a reason.  He said that it was important for people in those places to see groups of people of color.  

That us being there mattered, that it was powerful.  I felt the power of being part of that group from the beginning of TLP.  

My most significant area of growth of the course of TLP has been the impact it has had on my identity as a person of color.

I’ve talked in class and on Basecamp, the platform we use to communicate with the other students, about the complexities of my identity.  

I was born in Colombia, and was adopted into a white family when I was eight weeks old.  My primary and secondary education was at a school affiliated with my parents’ church, and I can count the other kids of color on one hand.  Even at Grand Valley State University, while more diverse than anywhere else I had ever been, was still mostly white.  Growing up brown, surrounded by white faces, is complicated.  Being adopted makes it even more so.  Imagine my dismay at discovering that the authors of Black Faces, White Places made “establishing a strong identity” their first step in achieving success and finding greatness.

I first found myself surrounded by other people of color toward the end of my university years.  I started volunteering at the Cook Library Center, and then at Cesar Chavez Elementary, both on the southwest side of town where a vast majority of families are Hispanic or Latino.  In those spaces, no one was confused by my presence— no one did a double take when they saw me, wondering why I was there.

Indeed, parents would turn to me with questions, expecting me to speak Spanish. This was the first time I learned that sometimes, people are upset if you don’t speak a language they expect you to speak.  I learned that sometimes, they will mutter rude things about your parents, thinking that they somehow betrayed the group by not bothering to teach you.  I learned that sometimes, you will feel a little betrayed by the inquiring party and by your parents, both failing you in some way that you can’t quite explain.

For awhile, being a person of color started feeling like something I should be embarrassed of, or try to casually reject.  Those feelings would come after someone made me feel like being Latina somehow made my accomplishments worth less.  

For example, I was chosen to be in the Grand Valley State University commencement video the year I graduated.  When I mentioned it in passing, a faculty member told me that I had only been chosen because I was brown.  While Grand Valley State University (and really all universities) does have a habit of pretending to be significantly more racially diverse than it is, this comment, coming from someone I trusted and respected, cut deep.  Of course, this wasn’t the first time I had heard comments like that; it was along the same lines as the people who took issue with me receiving certain scholarships.  That professor’s comment made all of the hard work I had done during my time at Grand Valley State University seem small.

My study abroad trip, the high grades I earned, my invitation to do research with a professor, my involvement in student organizations -- it was all reduced to nothing.  In his mind, the only reason I could possibly have been chosen for that video was because my skin was brown.  Too brown to be good enough on my own.

Sometimes, I also felt embarrassed because it was clear that the way I had been raised excluded me from initially understanding certain experiences or feelings that people of color share.  I had to learn language to express why certain ideas were offensive, or worse, learn the hard way that certain things were offensive at all.  Every time I did, it was another reminder that I just wasn’t Latina enough.  

For example, when I was an intern, I remember watching the Cesar Chavez Day parade on Grandville Ave. with my class of 3rd and 4th grade students, most of whom were Mexican and Guatemalan, with a few white and African American students mixed in.  When all the flags came by, they cheered for the flag they recognized, and asked me to point out “my flag”— they meant the Colombian flag.  Seconds later, things devolved into a yelling match between several different contingents of kids over who was best— some were chanting U-S-A, others Me-xi-co.  They were urging me to join in, demanding I pick a side.  I responded the way I had been raised— I told them that it didn’t matter where we were from.  As soon as the words left my mouth, and as soon as I saw the looks on the kids’ faces, I knew I had messed up.  Now, I have the language and the concepts to explain why the “I don’t see race” trope is problematic.  Then, I just knew it felt lousy, and I knew I had let my kids down.  Too “white” to be able to help those kids work through the ideas they were expressing.

I’ve grown since those first experiences.  I’ve learned that sometimes, people of color will say they accept you as a Latina, until they’ve had a few drinks and they make a joke you don’t have the cultural frame to understand, and then they laugh and tell you aren’t reallyLatina.  I’ve learned that sometimes, being the only brown woman in the room means that everyone looks to you to speak on behalf of all people of color.  I’ve learned that both of those are pretty lousy ways to treat someone. I think the most important lesson I’ve learned over time is that I have to let myself be the only person to define me.  I’ve also learned that having other people, usually people of color, around to affirm that I’m not crazy, and that I’m enough, is incredibly powerful.

TLP has given me a much needed chance to feel proud to be a woman of color and powerful as a member of a group of color.  It was a place where I could watch people of color disagree with one another, reminding me that I am not required to think the same as someone else just because we look alike.  The people there made me feel like the positions I took were valid, and that my perspective mattered.  

TLP has allowed me to feel like a valued contributor to important conversations. It was a space where I was admitted both because I was Latina and because people saw potential in me— at no point did I have to decide which was more important.  

The kind of encouragement and affirmation that I have received, and that I hope I will continue to receive and pay forward as an alumna, has been more valuable to me than I can put into words.

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