It was a warm summer evening in Phoenix, Arizona, during the summer after fifth grade, in 1992. Justyn, my best friend throughout elementary school invited me over for some sort of family get together. Justyn was a Hispanic boy who was in my class and lived right up the street from me. Both of us had lived in the neighborhood for as long as we could remember, an older neighborhood located on the west side of town. It consisted of mainly Hispanic families with a few African Americans families and a decreasing number of Whites. I was part of the White minority. We lived fairly close to the school so we had a great many school friends that lived nearby. I had spent a lot of time at Justyn’s house during third, forth, and fifth grade. Because he lived right up the street, I was very familiar and comfortable with the area and his immediate family. Justyn’s house was like a second home to me and my house was like a second home to him.
Never once did I feel any different than Justyn until I went over to his house during the big family get together that he had invited me to. The house was filled with Justyn’s family members that I had never met. There were about 25 people throughout the house and in the yard. I quickly noticed that Justyn and I were the only kids at the party. Loud Hispanic music filled the air along with dozens of conversations in Spanish. Everybody in the house was Hispanic except for me but that didn’t bother me as much as the fact that every one there was a stranger to me. After being there for a while I felt as if I was being stared at. I didn’t know if it was because I was a kid or what. I went there not worried about not belonging because Justyn’s parents had always treated me as just another one of their boys. But their family and friends were quick to point out that I was “different”. I was different because I am White, and they are Hispanic. I got a new nickname that day: “gringo”. I really didn’t like when they would call me that because it pointed out the fact that I was not like them and I felt very unaccepted around them. I felt as if I didn’t belong at their home because I was White.
That was the first time that I remember being singled out and set apart because of a difference in skin color. Being a minority in the neighborhood had never been a big deal because it was never pointed out as a bad thing. All of the kids my age never thought twice about it. Prior to that day I had never considered it important or even relevant that Justyn and I were of different ethnicities. I wondered if that was the first time that he realized that our different skin color was supposed to mean that we were different from each other. I also began to wonder if he felt out of place and unaccepted when he was around my family.
Some of his thoughts at the time of this incident may have gone like this:
I invited Joey over today for the big family dinner that we were having. That was the first time that he had been around all of my family. I really hoped that it wouldn’t be as awkward for him around my family as it was for me around his family. When I am at his house with his family I feel as if I can’t be myself. Everybody in Joey’s family seems to treat me slightly different than my Hispanic friends’ families do.
Joey stayed close to me the whole time he was over. I introduced him around to all of my family and I think he started to feel a little more comfortable as the evening went on. He talked to everybody there and seemed to be having fun until my Uncle came up and began to refer to Joey as “the gringo”. I knew that my Uncle had already had plenty to drink and really didn’t mean anything by it, but Joey was still obviously hurt by the comments. He was quiet the rest of the night and didn’t seem to want to be there.
I hoped that Joey knew that the fact that he is White had nothing to do with our friendship. After seeing Joey’s reaction that night, I will never call Joey a gringo. I’m sure that he has noticed, and appreciates the fact that I refer to him simply as, my friend Joey. I am glad that my Uncle’s stupid comment didn’t hinder our friendship.
Not once has Justyn ever called me gringo or made any reference to the fact that we come from two different races. Fortunately, that day didn’t cause us to change our views and perceptions of each other. That day, and many times since then, I have learned that a difference in race/ethnicity is more relevant to many people than I wish it were. Growing up in a neighborhood in which I was the minority, I was able to learn a lot about how painful “the Othering gaze” can be. In a sense, I grew up with the tables turned, part of a White minority and without the unearned privileges of most White people. It’s ironic though that one of the reasons that I was looked poorly upon was for having those unearned privileges that I really didn’t experience. I consider myself fortunate to have some insight as to what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a derogatory glare and to feel how painful it can be to be looked down upon because of the color of one’s skin. Justyn and I are still great friends to this day and I am thankful that we didn’t allow our “differences” to get in the way of our friendship.
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