What's in a name? Karen and the Aspiration of Whiteness
Editor's note: The following piece by Karen Andrade was first published on Medium's website. Visit the website to see the images that accompanied the piece.
This truth is composed of a knot of stories. It starts on a rainy afternoon in El Paso, Texas, 1981. I was born, like many others, after the fear, exhaustion, and angst of a difficult birth. After many hours of labour, my mom was told that her body was defective, her pelvis being too small, and I was delivered through c-section. A first time mom and medical professional who knew all the spoken and unspoken rules of the operating room, she did not question the assessment of her male American doctor. A doctor herself, an anesthesiologist, my mother grew up in a poor working-class neighborhood in Mexico City with parents who placed their hopes for upward mobility in education. Driven by her parents’ dreams, as well as her own intelligence and ambition, she graduated at the top of her class in medical school. She knew when to trust the experts, so, after I was born, she allowed her nurses to whisk me away and put me in a nursery so we could each recuperate from the traumatic birth we had shared.
My father took advantage of this enforced rest and space, as well as his mastery of English and his knowledge of how to navigate American bureaucracy, to assume the power of naming me. He named me Karen. I know little about him, since gratefully my parents were divorced by the time I turned 2. I grew up in Mexico City surrounded by my mother’s family, the only family I knew. My dad is a fictional character in my life, an absent figure whom I have reconstructed mostly through stories. The birthday congratulation calls petered out once I stopped sounding cute over the phone and he started becoming a stranger. Many years down the line, he was given the choice of bringing me closer to him and his family, but he intentionally decided to keep me in the periphery. So I chose to end that imaginary relationship and settled for the stories. He was born in Texas, a Mexican-American born to boot makers and piscadores, immigrants from Mexico that worked in the fields of Texas. He grew up in an abusive household in a country and state with a violent history towards Mexicans, hating himself, his dark brown skin, and his sticky affiliation with Mexico. My mom says that one day driving down the highway close to the border she saw something on the side of the road and asked my dad to stop. They pulled over to take a closer look and found the lonely cold body of an immigrant whose head had been shattered on the pavement. My father stood over it and said, “Que bueno. Para que no vengan a quitarle el trabajo a los de aca.”
He named me Karen. After watching Amy Cooper and her deadly, confident lies and threats to Christian Cooper, I was called to stare deeply at my brown skin and my white name. And what rose was a well of sadness, grief, and understanding. I never spoke, and never will, with my father about the moment he decided to leave his wife in the hospital room, her body battered by childbirth, to go to the registrar and secretly fill out the paperwork. He must have known that what he was doing was worth hiding. He must have known that it was deeply wrong, but felt it was completely necessary. My mom refused to call me by my name for the first three months of my life. She slowly resigned and I became KaahR-en (not keh-run). By the time I was 2, despite all of the pressure to remain married and the fear of being divorced in Mexican society, my brave mother took me back to Mexico City, where I grew up surrounded by cousins, aunts and uncles and where I was the only KaahR-en around. I hated my name when I was small. I yearned to be Ana Margarita, or Ana Paula, the names my mom would have picked for me. A name that would make sense in Mexican society. I fantasized about changing it, probably sensing some of the pain the name brought my mother. But until the past few weeks, I had not stopped to contemplate what this name likely meant for my father.
He named me Karen.
I think of the Karens he must have been imagining when he chose that name.
I was his first child and what he aspired for me was whiteness.
He hoped that my little brown body would grow up to embody whiteness.
Perhaps the kind of whiteness that made Amy Cooper feel entitled to call the cops on Christian Cooper simply because he dared ask her to put her dog on a leash
My thoughts on my father’s aspirations of whiteness are further complicated by my own experience of growing up in a country that has colorism and unacknowledged racism as part of the fabric of society. A country where growing up entails internalizing many spoken and unspoken rules about race, privilege, and class and it is so easy for the victims of racism to also become its perpetrators. What was the role of my name? I wonder how many times my application has come through the table of a decision-maker — Karen Andrade — and I have benefited from the aura of whiteness that surrounds my name. I have so often been asked — “oh Andrade, where is that from?” as people puzzle over me, perhaps surprised when the short, Mexican woman walks through the door.
Because at some point I settled into my name. As often happens in economically polarized cities like Mexico City, 5 minutes away from the poor working class neighborhood where I grew up sits an exclusive private school where diplomats, presidents, and the rich send their kids: The American School. Growing up and walking to her public elementary school, my mother had seen the yellow buses full of white faces and decided that she would one day send her kid to that school, and she did. I attended the American School from kindergarten to high school. I was the youngest kid to receive a scholarship to attend the school; to celebrate this milestone, a picture of me posing with my benefactors was shared in the local American expat newspaper. This is where I was first told I was pronouncing my name incorrectly — it was Karen (keh-run), not KaahR-en. Where it was emphasized that I was both Mexican AND American and how great that was. One of my earliest memories is of being confused about what that meant. In my childish imagination, I took it to mean that I would grow up and metamorphose into a blonde and blue eyed woman. I asked my white kindergarten teacher if that was true. She awkwardly told me that no, I would always have the beautiful eyes of Moctezuma.
In this school, I was given access to an amazing education and in many respects thrived. I excelled academically and loved the multiple learning opportunities that this rich private education presented. But I have come to understand that this academic formation also entailed a thorough education on how to embody whiteness. I learned how to code switch to make my white American teachers comfortable around me. I learned to study hard, swallow my anger, and hold my tongue. To dazzle with my grades and insights and hide all that was different and uncomfortable. In their comfort laid my success, and my mom always reminded me that success meant survival. Success meant getting the educational pedigree I needed to be safe, economically safe, realizing the long-held dream of upward mobility.
I learned to expect and accept that certain kids and adults in the school would not look at me, much less talk to me. That I would not be invited to most parties and that I would only be invited to the parties of those kids whose parents had made them invite everyone. That I might arrive at a friend’s house to be regarded with disgust by their mother. I had no words to explain or understand the imposed invisibility or the violence I experienced. I couldn’t even aspire to whiten my brown skin with Gucci or Armani clothes, as some of my classmates did. I internalized this racism and classism while also learning to use the privileges granted by my private education and my increasing aptitude for sounding and acting — if not looking — white.
In Mexican history class, when we learned about the castas, the caste system of the Nueva Espana, teachers presented them as historical relics, neutral facts to be memorized through rote learning. With a sing-songy voice we repeated: “Español con india: mestizo, Mestizo con española: castizo, Castizo con española: español, Español con mora (negra): mulato, Mulato con española: morisco, Morisco con española: chino, Chino con india: salta atrás…” and so on for all of the 16 castas. I was a keen student and I remember dutifully memorizing the pyramid and being confused by all the many twists and turns the system took. As I look back now it’s not confusing at all, as it was all about the promise of a future elevation towards whiteness. But back then, it was presented as an interesting artifact of how society in Nueva Espana was organized. No more than that. Wasn’t it great that the conquerors mixed in with the conquered instead of putting them in reservations like they did in the US? There was barely any mention of genocide, rape, or how the system was purposely designed to fracture and pitch one racialized group against the other. No discussion of the intentional erasure, or blanqueamiento, of indigenous and black people. No discussion of the dehumanization this system institutionalized, with value and virtue decreasing the further “down” the hierarchy you went. We all knew, but no one said, that the caste system was built to enable those at the top to exercise their privilege against those “below” as they saw fit. No one pointed out that the remnants from this system were still very much alive in the halls of our school. No one pointed out that we had all signed up for a contract in which for the promise of a future ascension to whiteness necessarily brought erasure and hate. Hay que mejorar la raza. Que blanca esta, muy guapa. I accepted the seed of shame for my indigenous ancestry and bought into anti-blackness. No puedes con la cara de nopal. Eres un naco. Como indito bajado del cerro a tamborazos. I ponder what role this internalized racism, this aspiration of whiteness, played in making me and many of my brown Mexican female friends marry white or white-presenting husbands. There is clearly an oversimplification and I know that I never consciously made the calculation, but I can’t help but hear echoes of that sing-songy repetition when I think about the choices, romantic and otherwise, my friends and I have made in our lives.
Yes, he named me Karen, but I chose to keep the name. I came to own my name. Perhaps because I came to understand the power in it. I hear myself say, oh no, it’s ok, it’s Karen (keh-run). And it is. It’s all me. I have come to master the contortions it takes to move between the roles of perpetrator and victim. What I need to learn now is how to peel off the layers, face the fear and hate, replace them with love and respect, and begin to create and own my space. Like many black and brown folks in the United States, my ability to access my ancestry and my past is very limited, on one side because of my father’s abdication and, on the other, because Mexican society did not deem my ancestors worth remembering. How do I start celebrating who I am? How do I learn to embody my brownness, let it take up the space it deserves? I hope this is a start. I need to see. I need to know. I need to grapple with this haze. This is part of my work, my action, the finding and shaping of my voice. I need to clear the fog to grow, to plant different seeds, to own my journey so I truly model anti-racism for my children. So I can really stop contributing to the perpetuation of racism, in my family, in science, in society. So I can rest from the exhaustion of code switching and build the courage to show up authentically regardless of fear. To come to truly believe Raychelle Burks that I have a voice and it has value and use it make space for the voices of others and the value they bring.