Why can’t I be both?: Questions on binaries, privilege and activism

“Where are you from?”

I turn to the man at the bus station. Wearing mismatched army pants and an African Kufi hat, he looks like some of the other lost souls that usually try to talk to me.

I sigh, and decide to be difficult.

“I’m from San Francisco,” I tell him, smiling innocently.

“Oh,” he says, but doesn’t give up. “But what is your heritage?”

“Oh you mean, what is my ethnicity? My mother is Brazilian, my dad is white American.”

“Brasileria, huh? Bailas samba?”

The man then starts on the usual spiel about how he thinks Brazilian women are so sexy and I have beautiful eyes. I begin to tune him out. I decide it’s not worth giving him a speech about the exotification of Latina women and how just because I am moving through public space doesn’t mean that me and my body are open for public debate. Another time. I’m tired today.

And I’m used to these kinds of interactions. Not just because I’m mixed, not just because I’m a woman. I’ve become accustomed to the fact that we live in a world of binaries, where ambiguity is to be avoided and no one lives in the middle. In my interactions with other people I’ve learned that I constantly need to choose: today, are you white, or Latina? Are you Brazilian, or are you American?  Are you part of the privileged, or part of the oppressed?

In reading Edwidge Danticat’s interview with Guernica Magazine, I was moved by her explanation of her own experience with binaries:

“It’s a constant debate, not just in my community but in other communities as well. Where do you belong? You’re kind of one of us, but you now write in a different language. You’re told you don’t belong to American literature or you’re told you don’t belong to Haitian literature…….That middle generation, the people whose parents brought them to other countries as small children, or even people who were born to immigrant parents, maybe they can have their own literature too.”

Is it possible for us to live somewhere in the middle? Is it desirable? These are questions I’ve been chewing on a lot lately. As a Latina feminist, I can at once be a native and foreigner. In any given situation, I move between the oppressed or the privileged. If I could draw my activism into a map, it would be a colorful collage of varying states of belonging and allyship.

It’s a landscape I struggle to navigate every day, but I’m starting to be ok with it. I’m starting to learn from it. I think it might just make me a better person. Julia Alvarez sums up my feelings perfectly:

“I am a Dominican, hyphen, American. As a fiction writer, I find that the most exciting things happen in the realm of that hyphen — the place where two worlds collide or blend together.'”

This post isn’t really about answers. It’s pretty much just a few paragraphs of questions, questions I want to explore a bit more here. I’m working on challenging binaries and using my fluid identity to move between spaces and strive for a more equitable world for us to live in.

In the words of Gloria Anzaldúa:

“To survive the Borderlands you must live sin fronteras, be a crossroads.”

“Nothing happens in the ‘real’ world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.”

Bay Area, California

Juliana is a digital storyteller for social change. As a writer at Feministing since 2013, her work has focused on women's movements throughout the Americas for environmental justice, immigrant rights, and reproductive justice. In addition to her writing, Juliana is a Senior Campaigner at Change.org, where she works to close the gap between the powerful and everyone else by supporting people from across the country to launch, escalate and win their campaigns for justice.

Juliana is a Latina feminist writer and campaigner based in the Bay Area.

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