The second he discovered I was Dominican, he immediately tried to find common ground. “My ex-girlfriend is Dominican,” he said. “Oh cool,” I responded. Next thing I know we’re talking about how she’d throw her chanclas at him (yes, he used the word chanclas) every time they got into a fight. “Have you ever thrown chanclas at a guy before?” he asked laughing.
While I don't believe this man meant any harm with his question, it still bothered me. But the real issue here was how I responded to it.
The last thing I want is for people to associate me with stereotypes. I might be Latina, but we don't fit one mold and stereotypical comments immediately get my defenses up.
“Historically minorities have experienced prejudice, stigma, and shame,” says psychologist Dr. Karen Caraballo. “It’s typical that in situations that trigger those feelings that a person would be more likely to repeat the pattern to avoid those feelings.”
But here’s the problem with saying “I’m not that kind of Latina”: It does more bad than good, and not just to me, but to the entire Latina community.
“This is dangerous because we are acting as the oppressor within our own group,” says Caraballo. “We have already experienced enough shame, prejudice, and stigma from other groups and when we repeat that pattern we are creating more divisions, stigma, and shame with our Latina sisters.”
I realized that by saying “I’m not that kind of Latina” every time I felt I was being stereotyped or discriminated against, I was essentially saying that I was “better than” Latinas that might meet those stereotypes, and I’m not.
“Saying that you are 'not that kind of Latina' can give one a sense of empowerment, a sense of ownership over their identity,” says Dr. Samantha C. Sweeney, a psychologist and cultural competence expert.
“It creates a splintering of and hierarchy within a community. It also narrows the definition of what it means to be a Latina.”
I was, in a sense, giving into the stereotypes by conveying that all Latinas are a certain way and that I am an “exception.” It also implies that not fitting into these stereotypes makes me “less Latina.”
“Yes, a Latina can embody stereotypes and yes she can also break every stereotype out there,” says Sweeney. “But no one gets to define what it means to be Latina except for a Latina herself. It’s an alternative way of taking back the power of defining one’s self from the dominant group.”
We are all so different and Latinas will never fit neatly into the preordained boxes society wants us to fit in. Just because I haven’t thrown a chancla (yet) doesn’t make me any better or worse than anyone else.