Us vs. Them: Is it always the case?

“Don’t worry about discrimination in the States. You can pass off as a white person.”

“Are you from Honduras? I am surprised because you look white.”

“Don’t fall in love with a Hispanic if you want your kids to look pretty.”

Growing up, I was always told that I was meant for a better life and greater opportunities. My family back in Honduras referred to me as an “investment” or “the way out” of our low-income background. I went through middle school and high school methodically planning out how I was supposed to meet those big expectations. However, it never dawned on me that, to them, I already had a head start.

As the only daughter, my family made sure I would always have big standards for the man I was supposed to marry. But, oddly enough, the conversation seldom revolved around personality or character.  Comments regarding race or socioeconomic background would surface as important aspects for a “worthy” prospect. I quickly noticed how my inner circle began shaping my personal satisfaction as a Hispanic woman.

Feeling like an outsider in another country or culture is already challenging. However, I have found that it is even harder to feel like an outsider in your own country. After being catalogued as “too white to be Hispanic” for most of my life by my Hispanic peers, I often wonder how a Honduran or Hispanic person should look. As I researched more into what constitutes our social identity, I stumbled upon a theory that intends to explain stereotypes and racism.

According to the Economic and Social Research Council, the Us vs. Them Theory suggests that “the group we identify with is important to our self-esteem and sense of identity.” This theory also states that we will look for negative aspects in other groups and favor our own group. But what happens when your in-group encourages you to look for negative aspects in your identity? That is my experience.

When I found out that I was accepted into JBU, I was not too concerned about my adaptation to American culture because it is not far from what Honduran culture is like in the big cities. Local radio stations streaming English pop music, big food chains like McDonald’s being the go-to rendezvous, and people wearing trendy clothing from a Forever 21 catalog is what daily life in the city looks like. Back then, I was sure that I was not completely leaving my comfort zone.

Not being too uncomfortable with my transition to another country posed a conflict in my mind: How can I embrace my culture if I have been told it is wrong? Whenever I have voiced my concerns out loud, I am quickly reminded by others of how “privileged I am to live the American dream.” To us, it is a success to leave behind your own identity to conform to others, to pass off as someone you are not, to bring down whoever tries to celebrate our heritage. And it never feels right to me.

As an international student who constantly switches from one country to another, I have come to realize how important it is to represent my cultural roots. I have learned to reconcile with the fact that it is our internalized racism that prevents us from fully celebrating our national identity. I have realized that, sometimes, the person who is supposed to be your ally can also be your enemy. I have learned to appreciate the little aspects that make me Hispanic and Honduran.

Advocating for diversity is everyone’s responsibility at any given place or time. But, I believe it is important for diverse groups of people to start celebrating differences in their own environments. Embracing where we come from originates from an education that exhorts us to be proud of our cultural heritage. However, Honduras is crippled by the prevalent idea that something is inherently wrong with our country. How are we supposed to be educated in the diversity of dialects, customs and indigenous groups that we have if we would rather study the French Revolution or the Civil War?

In order to feel welcomed in other countries or cultures, we need to start accepting ourselves first. From personal experience, I noticed that I appreciate my culture more when others express interest and desire to know my roots. It is now up to me to let them know just how rich and beautiful my country is, even when I sometimes fail to value it myself.