I am a mixed race person. My father’s indigenous ancestors are from multiple tribes of present-day Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Northern Mexico, and throughout the Americas. They’ve been on this land for over ten thousand years. My other ancestors through him also hail from Mexico, West Africa and Spain.
But, I was raised to believe I am White. My mom is White, of Scottish, Swedish, and French decent, and the man who raised me is a tall blonde man of Dutch-Polish decent. That’s where I get my last name – Vande Panne. It is Dutch in origin, most likely from the village of De Panne on the present-day Belgian coast.
The family I spent my childhood with have very white skin, red- and blonde- hair, and everyone has blue or green eyes. But me? I am petite, with dark hair and dark eyes, and a nose that’s just a bit too round and wide to be Anglo.
But being raised White meant I did learn White privilege, while not being totally accepted as White by my own family, let alone other people. White people often commented on my “ethnic” hair, and made disparaging remarks about it, along with disparaging comments on my cheeks, and my nose. And my height. And my short waist. And… the list goes on.
I had a brief relationship with a White man—a blonde hair, blue-eyed Canadian, in fact—who said my eyes were “the color of shit.”
When I learned my true heritage, I no longer felt like an awkward, ugly White person—which is how I felt when among White people. When someone says your eyes are the color of shit, or your hair isn’t normal, or you’re too short, how can you not feel ugly?
Today I find power in my heritage, and I proudly embody it. But that also presents problems, especially in the White world: It seems my heritage isn’t as important as coveted diversity credibility for businesses striving to be perceived as inclusive.
We are living in a time of both White guilt and a rush to seem progressive by hiring and befriending people of color—striving to do so, in fact.
But what’s happening is people are getting jobs and friends from their networks, as they always have. I know a newsroom made up almost entirely of Ivy leaguers. The problem of course is the homogenization of thought. Often, to succeed in the White world, people of color need to adapt White thought.
Even though I was raised White, White thought never sat well with me (gratitude to my ancestors!). I have struggled my entire life to live in the White world, without being of the White world. Breaking free from systems of oppression—especially capitalism—is something I write about regularly.
But still, I do work. I am a writer. I do live in this world. I do not plan to disconnect entirely from it and hide. I do have messages and ideas to share, that people tell me are inspirational.
Recently, I’ve been looking at a gig with a well-known, popular media outlet. More than one person has advised me to change my name, to adapt my biological father’s last name, so the hiring managers will automatically know I am a minority when they see my name, and therefore increase the likelihood that they will hire me.
For the record: The folks encouraging me to do this are both White and African American.
White folks know how to work their system. So do African Americans who’ve had to live in it for centuries.
I might know, too. But I am not going to change my name to signal to White people I am Native, or Mexican, or Mixed Race, any more than I am going to get a Virgin of Guadalupe tattoo or wear large hoop earrings. I am also not going to wear my hair in two long braids to a business meeting, or start wearing white embroidered dresses from Oaxaca or the Yucatán. Nor will I wear embroidered moccasins from the Dakotas. Or embrace any other “style” White people associate with my heritage.
Clothing, tattoos, and jewelry can be deeply meaningful, and often are. But what I wear has meaning to me, and will not be worn to virtue signal to White people.
Many White people today expect—even demand—to see physical evidence of heritage. They want a dark face for their employee photo page, or a Spanish name to list on their masthead or in production credits or on their website, to prove diversity. They want the name as their own badge of progressiveness.
And, they want to see you and be able to say, confidently, “That person is African American” or “Mexican” or “Native.” Then, they want to tokenize.
White people often seem to require such signaling. Perhaps it is a side effect of White, systemic ignorance. Often, there is confusion that Mexico is a part of North, not South, America. There is confusion about those who are mixed-race: How to classify them? Most don’t know that Native Americans were enslaved, and sold as slaves. The fact that African Americans are often mixed-race too, with Native American history, is lost to genocide and White systems that say African Americans are too dark to be Native Americans.
And the idea of what appears Native is based on, at best, a misguided White system of popular media.
But, that is why the name is so important and a perceived easy fix. When people can’t see you to peg you, or are unsure of how to peg you when they look at you, they want to at least be able to peg you by name.
Yes, Vande Panne is a colonizer’s name. Yes, it symbolizes the genocide of my Native family. But here’s a secret about the Spanish names of the Americas: The Spanish were colonizers. Arguably, they were worse than the Dutch. They enslaved, tortured, and killed my people. A Spanish name is, in the Americas, often still a colonizer’s name.
So, my current name signals to many that I am White. But my features are where my mixed race heritage comes through, while my skin color is often too light to be considered a person a color, or to automatically give a White company the diversity cred it seeks—even if my skin is leche con miel colored (milk with honey, as a former boyfriend from Ecuador used to say).
Yet that descriptor, too, is an intentional White system that people of color have adapted. It is language and lines drawn, taken from colonizers. It might be adopted, now, by the mixed-race people of the Americas, who use café con leche, café negro, chocolate, canela, and so much more as ways to describe and adore the shades of brown and black skin, hair, and eyes that mixed-race people have. It might even be a diversity and a poetry White people envy.
But this gradient shade language was used to sell slaves, to entice buyers to spend more money on lighter colored, commoditized human flesh. The darkest were the least valuable, and intricate systems were developed to place value based on skin tone.
Look around in mass media. You don’t need to look very far to see it. Blood quantum and the one-drop rule are very much with us today, even if they aren’t popular topics of conversation.
Given all of this history, only touched upon here, why would I swap one colonizer’s name for another? Why should I change my name in order for a White system to know immediately how to peg me, commoditize me, and make money on me—on my name?
I am the same person I was before I “came out” as Mixed Race. I do the same work. Do I really need to change my name to satisfy some White notion of woke-ness?
Haven’t I already paid enough for the lingering effects of genocide, with its effect on my own family? On my own mind?
Haven’t we all?