Which Box do I Check?

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Kira Muñoz

October 4, 2019

I was eight the first time I asked my mom what box to check on a form for school. My mom identifies as White and my dad identifies as Mexican. There wasn’t a box for that. My mother told me, “Mark the Hispanic box, because you are what your father is.” I would spend the next 15 years or so marking this box, and completely losing sight of the fact that I was also White.

As I got older I started to come to terms with being mixed, but I still selected Hispanic on my forms as, “mixed” and “select all that apply” were not options until my mid to late 20s. Even so, those boxes didn’t really seem to fit me. Knowing that my ancestry is part Aztec, Incan, Spaniard, and African, to create the summation of my Mexican identity, while Austrian, Finnish, Polish and Asian descent comprise my White identity, selecting any race seemed unfitting. I distinctly recall checking all the boxes (Indigenous, White, Hispanic, and Asian) on an anonymous survey for a psychology class, and the professor going through the results with the class and pulling my form out because I had too many identities circled. By the time I graduated with my bachelors’ degree, I had begun marking “other” and writing in “human” as my race.

During graduate school, I had recognized the terms Latinx and Hispanic were not classified under the race category, but rather were considered ethnicity. I continue to be confused by the complexity of this social construct. I continued to mark “other” as my race and “Hispanic or Latino” as my ethnicity. In a multicultural counseling course, our professor asked one of my classmates, who is also mixed race, if she had ever explored her White identity and I took that question and turned it onto myself. I had spent my whole life solely identifying as Latina. I began having an identity crisis because I started to think about my White identity for the first time in my life, while also trying to figure out how my Mexican heritage fit into my identity with my current understanding of race and ethnicity.  I began piecing together various experiences in my life that helped me to become more self-aware and more aware of the perceptions of others. I had always been racially ambiguous, sometimes people meet me and assume I am White, while others assume I am Latinx, while others think I’m something else entirely.

As I processed through what it meant to be part of two cultures, both of which never fully accepted me into their worlds, I made some connections about my lived experiences I would have never pieced together before. I began to understand that my friends in high school were calling out my privilege when we would walk home from school and joke around that “we are safe to cross the street because la guera’s (white girl) with us,” or that we could all go into the store together because I was there. They knew what I was so blissfully unaware of: my skin color gave me White privilege in this setting.  

I also had an experience during my first year of college, where I went to northern, rural Wisconsin to visit some family and was warned by my aunt that I would likely be perceived as Native American. I went to a store with my aunt and was followed by a sales associate. I had never experienced that in Milwaukee. Reflecting upon that, I now know that when I am presumed to be White (which is most of the time) I live life with the privilege of not being harassed or followed because of my skin color, but when people perceive me as a person of color, I experience harassment and microaggressions.

I went to South Africa for a short-term study abroad trip during grad school and noticed that my travel companions of color were all stopped for additional security screenings. I was not. I attributed this to my skin color and racial profiling.

I was beginning a new job after grad school and thought about my role in helping others develop a sense of identity, and how ironic it was that I was in a position where I was still figuring that out for myself.  Oddly enough, I found that my identities helped me to connect to my residents in unique ways and to teach my students how to see things from varying perspectives. Being part of two cultures, I was brought up to see things through different lenses depending on what side of the family I was around. I learned about what it meant to be part of a collectivist culture and part of an individualistic culture. My experiences with my dad’s side helped me to connect with students who strongly valued their family’s’ input on their decisions, while my experiences with my mom’s side helped me to connect with students who sought to make decisions independently. By seeing things from multiple perspectives, I was able to challenge students who were having a religious differences conflict to try to see things from the other resident’s perspective, which resulted in the two of them developing an understanding of where the other person was coming from and the two of them forming a friendship. As I transitioned into my current position, I was able to use my experiences to help a student who is a transracial adoptee process through her experiences of microaggressions and identity development during her first year of college.

While I know the value my identities bring to the work I do, I have also been discouraged by interactions I have had while working in the field. 

I did a service-learning coordinator position in Texas after graduating with my bachelors’, where I met a person that told me “mixed kids are weird.” I asked if they thought I was weird, and they stated they didn’t realize I was mixed. I also had multiple people on and off campus assume that I would be fluent in Spanish because of my last name.  

While I was in my first position after graduate school, I experienced even more microaggressions. I had a coworker who treated me like the rest of our colleagues until he discovered I identified as a Latina. From then on, he would speak to me in his version of a Spanish accent stating that he was trying to sound like me- to be clear I am from the Midwest and have a Midwestern accent. A mutual friend invited us to breakfast while they were in town, and this co-worker approached me and said, “I was just down by your people for a wedding.” I responded, “My people?” To which he replied, “Yeah, I was just down in Ecuador.” I politely shared that those in fact are not “my people,” and glared at my friend across the table to see if they had noticed what just happened. I tried to educate him on the inappropriateness of his actions on multiple occasions, and he continued with this behavior upon each interaction we had until I left the institution.

I also had a campus partner inform me that she could tell me where to find tacos if I needed some recommendations upon our first meeting. At first, I thought she was trying to be helpful since I was new to town. Upon further reflection, she could have recommended restaurants in general. The fact that it was specifically tacos caused me to wonder if it was because she noticed my last name was Latin, after all my cards did have the “ñ” on them. She never brought it up again, and we developed a decent relationship over the next few years, but I’ll never forget the feelings associated with that conversation.

I wish I could say that these incidents were the only incidents, but they are not.

As an educator, a supervisor, a social justice enthusiast, and a person who strives to create inclusive and equitable spaces for the people I serve, I believe it is my responsibility to share these experiences with others and to help others become aware of how identities and perceptions influence the impact on those we interact with, even if it is in opposition to the affect we desire. I use my experiences to train my student staff on microaggressions, code-switching, what it means to be an ally or an accomplice, and how their privileges can be part of the solution or contribute to the problem; and I leverage my experiences to present to professionals in the field to make them think about the experiences that often go unheard and unrepresented. As a person, I also understand that I am not perfect and that I too have used microaggressions, hold biases, and can’t fully understand the lived experiences of others. As a learner, I hope others are open to calling me out on microaggressions, hold me accountable to confront my biases, and are comfortable sharing their stories with me so I can learn from them.

Overall, I think that being multiracial or multiethnic makes me an asset in the world of student affairs and higher education. It has made me a stronger critical thinker and problem solver. It allows me to challenge people to think about different perspectives. It has taught me resilience. It makes me relatable to a variety of students. It has taught me how to be diplomatic. And it contributes to my creativity in approaching training and development. While society tries to confine my identity to a box, I know that I am so much more than that. 

 Kira Muñoz, M.S., is an Area Coordinator at the College of Saint Benedict in central Minnesota. Kira received her master’s degree in College Counseling & Student  Development from St. Cloud State University and her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Alverno College. Kira is originally from Southeast Wisconsin, and has lived in Texas, Minnesota, and Kentucky. Kira has also worked in Multicultural Student Services, Graduate Student Services, Service Learning, and at a campus Women’s Center. Kira enjoys spending time with family and friends, traveling, and the arts. She is passionate about social justice issues, student development, and Zumba!

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