I scoffed the first time someone told me that race is a social construct. Looking back, my reaction seems ironic, given that I’ve continuously struggled with defining my own racial identity.

You see, I am white. But I am also a person of color.

As a Latin@ immigrant in the United States, my racial identity depends not so much on my ancestry as it does on where I am at any particular moment.

I was born and raised in Colombia, where I am white.

I am white not only because my freckled face and pale skin are practically translucent, but also because I am middle class and, in Colombia, race and class are inextricably linked.

This is why the people who work at the cafeteria at the University of Los Andes (the most expensive and prestigious university in the country) call every student—even the ones with jet black hair and deep brown skin—mono, the Colombian slang word for blond.

As a middle class white girl in Colombia, my skin color and economic status afforded me the privilege of (sadly) being unaware and ignorant of race relations in the country.

I never even thought about my racial identity until I moved to the United States when I was 10. I didn’t need to and nor did anyone ever push me to.

In this new country, however, I was bombarded with remarks about how I was “so white for a Colombian!”

People in restaurants, friends of friends, and even coworkers made it a point to let me know that my being white somehow contradicted my being Colombian.

Many were not satisfied with the sarcastic laugh I responded with, and interrogated me on my entire family history.

As an oblivious little girl, this confused me. Was it not possible to be both white and Latina?

Apparently, in this new country, it wasn’t. So I embraced my status as a person of color, despite the fact that I am paler than most Europeans I know.

The more time I spent in the US, the farther I drifted from my white identity from home. Here’s why:

Because I have experienced discrimination and exotization based on my background.

Because my friends and I were called refs (from refugees) by our peers at school, and when we did better than the native English speakers in class, they often complained about how ridiculous it was that we, the girls with accents who always spoke Spanish, could get a higher grade.

Because when a Peruvian friend came back from North Carolina with a story of how her family had been refused service at a restaurant, I became forever afraid of going there.

Because I’ve often wondered whether my accent and my name will hurt my chances of getting a job.

Because, on a global scale, being from “the third world” makes me a person of color.

But once I started traveling and living abroad, my racial identity again seemed to defy (and continues to defy) any attempt at a clear definition.

Any conclusion I reached in the past is now contradicted by the attitudes of the people in the countries I’ve visited.

In Morocco, I am a white girl again.

In England, my accent immediately gives me away and I am a person of color.

In France, it depends on who I am talking to. Foreigners tend to think of me as American (aka white), Latin Americans think of me as Colombian (aka brown), and French people say that I am half-and-half.

It constantly frustrates me that my race and ethnicity are defined more by who I am speaking to than by me or my heritage.

Of course, my experience is still marked by the paleness of my skin. Even in countries like the US, where race is defined by “blood” rather than color, my complexion affords me gentler treatment and less discrimination than that experienced by many Colombians whose story would mirror mine were it not for the brown in their faces.

If you’ve come here as a third culture child, Latin@ immigrant, or curious bystander looking for answers, I am sorry to disappoint. I have none.

But I do know this:

Our definitions of race are too narrow for this globalized world in which identities are intricate, complicated, and often contradictory.

As travelers (and human beings), we need to be aware of how our perceived identity affects the people around us. Sometimes locals may think of us as a threat, sometimes as allies.

However, we do get a say in our own identity.

When I tell people that it makes me uncomfortable to be called gringa, it often leads to productive discussions about race, ethnicity, and cultural identity. 

After moving back to Colombia, for example, some of my friends used that word to tease me.

When they noticed that this bothered me, it sparked conversations about cultural identity and how it affects how we see our ethnicity and race in a global scale. 

It also led to heated debates about race relations in Colombia, and why so many people insist on denying that racism is even an issue. 

As Colombians, is our third world status more important than the privilege we enjoy in our own country?

The world isn’t black and white. It’s ok to not fit in nicely into a category.

And race is, most definitely, a social construct.

If you feel lost and confused about your identity, know that it gives you a unique fluidity.

Know that this limbo sometimes means that you have a broader perspective. Know that the world needs people like you, who are not afraid to face the uncomfortable questions of their personal history, and grow from the difficult answers.

Know that you are not alone.


What’s been your experience with your racial identity as a traveler? Share in the comments.


Featured image courtesy of Ravi Roshan.

Mariana Zapata
I am a Colombian immigrant to the United States who spends her time reading, writing, and dreaming about traveling. When I'm not thinking of travel, I'm worrying about global affairs, binging on Netflix, dancing, or living my frustrated Broadway dreams through the magic of karaoke. To read about my travels/thoughts/projects check out my personal blog: https://unexpectedwanderlust.com/

You may also like

5 Comments

  1. I’m ambiguously brown enough that I’ve been mistaken for being every race/ethnicity except European/Caucasian. I was born and raised in America, but people abroad can’t help but tell me that I don’t look American to them. Because, of course, there’s only one real American look, smh.

    1. It’s so frustrating how people react to you not fitting into their stereotypes. You’d think they would take a step back and think “man, maybe I’m wrong and not everyone in X country looks the same” rather than question if people are actually what they say they are.

  2. As a white person with a Puerto Rican father, I so totally experience similar things. In Colombia I was read completely as “gringa” and my lack of perfect Spanish pretty much confirmed every assumption people made about me. In Puerto Rico, I was assumed native to the island (though I grew up in Pennsylvania surrounded by Amish farmland), and people were offended when I couldn’t communicate easily or when I was confused by local customs. Where I live in the DC area, no one assumes anything. I get people coming up to me in Target speaking Spanish because they must see something in me that says I’ll understand, while earlier that day I may have shocked a coworker when I explained that I didn’t “marry into” my last name. I’m traveling to Cuba soon and will be interested to see what happens.

  3. I love this post! As a Portuguese-American, I am a self-identified “sandy” person. I’ve had people tell me I’m brown and I need to “own it”. I’ve had many try to place me– Americans will often ask, “so, are you Latina or…?” When I was in Mexico and Peru, I got mixed reactions — people told me it wasn’t impossible that I would be from there so they didn’t rule me out. In many ways it can be frustrating to be seen so differently in different places, but I take it as a compliment that so many places I travel to assume I’m a local!

  4. […] Read next: White at Home and Brown Abroad: Navigating Race and Identity as a Latin@ Immigrant and Traveler […]

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *