The Right Words to Say: On Being Read as White

The Right Words to Say: On Being Read as White

The Toast

Dahlia Grossman-Heinz

When you meet me for the first time, you read me as if I were a book. Every idea you have about me and every word I say is part of that book.

When you look at me, you will think I am white. I already know this. When you shake my hand and meet me for the first time, you always already read me as white. You will hear me speak English without an accent and think I am white. You will hear or read my last name and think I am white. You read me wrong.

We all have crowded bookshelves in our heads crammed with texts for every person we know. They knock about in our skulls, falling off the shelves. We refer to them again and again, wearing the pages thin. When you read me wrong, everything that follows is askew.

I have strategies I use to tell you who I am. They have different rates of success, but I will employ them all whenever the situation allows. I mention my quinceañera. I tell the story of the first time my parents heard me speak English. I say words deliberately correctly in Spanish like guerrilla. I talk about Mexican music I like. I note that I am a bilingual Spanish speaker on my resume. I talk about Mexican movies I like. When I am with people, I answer phone calls from my mom and tell her I can’t talk, but I do it in Spanish. I keep her on the phone a little longer than I have to. Whenever the topic of family comes up, I say that most of mine lives in Mexico. I am prepared with these tactics when I have to tell you who I am, ready to fit them in between the pauses so that you might reread me. I’m better at it now than I used to be—I’ve been practicing a long time, figuring out the right words to say…

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