In her candid memoir about growing up in the U.S. as an immigrant from Mexico, Julissa Arce makes the case for rejecting assimilation in You Sound Like A White Girl, a book about finding and accepting one’s identity in a world that pushes many into trying to be everything that they’re not.
At a launch party for the book hosted by the Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino, I related to a story Julissa shared from the book about how her high school boyfriend told her that she sounded “white.” This happened to me so many times as a girl, and I hated it! But for Julissa, someone who had been practicing with a lot of effort to speak English without an accent for most of her childhood, she saw this as a compliment. It was only later on in life that Julissa came to realize what I had grown up knowing as an American who was living in between two cultures (Black American and European American, a.k.a. “White” culture) since birth: the comment, “You sound like a white girl ” is a racist idea, said mainly by people of color to other people of color as a put down to make them feel guilty for sounding like “the Man.” The comment, more deeply analyzed is meant to imply that if you sound like “them” then you must be like “them”—the oppressors.
In this relatable read that any Black or Brown woman from any corner of the world can connect with, Julissa breaks down how cultural mores keep people of color and immigrants down. If you assimilate by “sounding White” or “uppity” or “proper,” then communities of color won’t accept you. If you use slang, like Spanglish or Ebonics as your main mode of communications, then European-Americans won’t accept or respect you, especially in Corporate America.
Julissa recalls a painful incident when she held a position as a vice president at a corporation. One day she took her team to lunch at an upscale restaurant. When she left her table to go to the restroom, some White people at another table and stopped her to ask for service at their table. They mistook her for a waitress. This reminded her of the cultural purgatory that many successful Black and Brown people live in everyday. It can sometimes feel as if non-melanated people, no matter how successful, well-dressed and elegant a melanated person you are, can only see a Brown or Black face. In moments of “thin-slicing” as Malcolm Gladwell so expertly put it in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking Book by Malcolm Gladwell—they then quickly jump to old stereotypes like, you must be “the help” because certainly you’re not in this room for the fine dining experience.
Words can be like crabs in a barrel, no matter what ethnicity you are, a negative comment can pull down your energetic high. Call someone outside of their name and, oh, get ready to fight, have a heated exchange of words, or lose a friend. People of all walks of life get mad by these verbal crab claws. So, imagine what it feels like when someone is told that they don’t “sound” or “look” like how they “should.”
You Sound Like A White Girl exposes lies about whiteness, American history, use of the English language and the idea of the American Dream to offer a new promise to Black and Brown Americans and immigrants alike in an effort to help them find true belonging and beauty in U.S. society.