Even as a Latino born and raised in New York, I never considered that my last name would or could have a hand in steering my life’s direction. A last name, I thought, was a marker of unique identity to set me apart from other Brandons. What would it have to do with race, how could it impact someone’s overall life? As I walked down the urban Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick one afternoon with my mother, I learned that I wasn’t yet seeing the bigger picture.
My mother and I shared a sidewalk, strolling down Putnam Avenue, a predominantly Latino and lower-class neighborhood (it’s now in the middle of a makeover thanks to gentrification). We were lugging home groceries that evening. It was a celebrated haul after struggling for a few weeks as my mother parsed out her unemployment. I noticed she was gazing at the well-worn, pre-war buildings that housed so many Latino and Hispanic families, and she told me something that would always stick with me, something I think back to every other day as I navigate through life. She told me, “Your last name will afford you better opportunities because it is White.”
Caught off guard and confused, I wondered, what does that matter? Of course, now I understand what she meant. My surname sounds White, ending as it does in “-sky” (pronounced “skee”). Usually, “-ski” or “-sky” is part of a European surname. We walked along as I continued to process what she told me, then I wondered what would make her say this.
Budget cuts had spelled out a harsh time for my mother, who was laid off from her payroll position at Securitas earlier that year. She had been striking out as a teacher, having a difficult time since ’99 finding a stable job as a teacher in the Department of Education. When I eventually broke silence and asked her why my last name would matter at all, she told me that, “Race is everything in this world, guy,” as far as America was concerned.
She mentioned a theory she had, a simple one: she was struggling with her teaching career because of her last name. When I asked her to explain, she shared with me that it would be easier to get a job as a teacher in New York should one’s last name sound neutral or, to be blunt, White.
At first it seemed like a stretch. Was my mother bitter? Was she being unreasonable? Certainly there was a reason for her struggling to find work, although if you had asked me at 14 years old, I would have never thought it was because of a last name. I know now that something like this is far from a stretch. Last year, my mother brought it to my attention that a lawyer had approached her asking if she’d like to become a part of a class-action lawsuit against the DOE (Department of Education). The basis: ethnic discrimination during the hiring process, and discrimination from within the organization with incoming applicant teachers.
Not much time had passed before I realized the truth: one’s last name is indeed an indicator of where we come from, and it does hold much more weight than I initially imagined. Surnames act as a flag, a marker, of where you belong and what blood courses through your veins.
A surname is a harbinger of destiny, it foreshadows what path one will walk (or can walk). A Stella Evans would garner more respect and attention on a job application, even outside the DOE, than a Stella Rodriguez. A Brandon Danowsky will, unfortunately, by her theory, fare better on a job application than a Brandon Rodriguez. She wasn’t wrong, she still isn’t. As far back as 2017, NPR reported that Asian last names, as an example, still lead to fewer job interviews.1
Sadly, Harvard Business School also published a piece that minorities who have spun their resumes as “White” landed more interviews. This “whitening” is seen in actions like removing traces of race on their resume. These resumes are twice as likely to receive interviews2. My mother can pass as White with her lighter skin, even though her last name suggests a Pacific Islander who may be of dark skin tone if a hiring manager or recruiter were to read her name on her resume.
Ironically, I am her direct descendant and I have that very color, that bronzed tone, that been-out-in-the-sun look.
Ironically, I may have faced more physical ethnic discrimination than she has. I recall a time when I applied for a position at MacMillan Publishing in NY in 2016, when I was interviewed by a woman with very pale White skin. The interview was ending and there was time for a short exchange of small talk and pleasantries.
I’ll never forget that moment when the woman flicked her eyes to me and back to the top of my resume which displayed my last name. She shifted in her well-worn gray seat and asked, “So Danowsky…is that Polish?” Immediately, I sensed a subtext to the question. My last name and skin color didn’t match up; it was obviously out of the norm. I replied that it’s actually German and that I am mixed race.
She gave a simple, “hmm,” with no tone. The delivery of the word was flat, nigh unreadable. I wrote my thank you email to her and reflected on that meeting later that evening. I walked out of the woman’s office with the sense that her last question was more important than it should have been. I did not get that job, but I think it had more to do with the way the interview transpired, of course, than that question, the remarking of that one detail. I’ll always wonder if the person who was hired looked anything like me, though. I’d imagine they didn’t.
As a biracial individual my identity has always been a source of confusion. I identify wholly as Latino, but I cannot speak fluent Spanish. I do not identify in the slightest as German, and I do not speak that language either. Depending on my haircut, I look like an urban Latino, or racially ambiguous with longer hair. I’ve always been too White for the Latinos and too Latino for the Whites. This has been a continuous point of self-conflict for me.
Flores-Gonzalez et al. write in their study “Doing Race”: Latino Youth’s Identities and the Politics of Racial Exclusion that “although Latinos share common experiences that position them as a racial minority group experientially, there is no racial category to reflect this racialization.”3 What these scholars are saying can be put simply: Latinos cannot identify as a race because Latino isn’t a race. As race is, by definition, a set of shared identifiable physical traits (like the texture of one’s hair), Latinos vary across the board. They’re White, Black, even Asian and European. The Latino racial “makeup” spans the globe.
Because we are racially assorted, what we have in common instead are, as the scholars state, “common cultural elements like the Spanish language, a shared heritage through Spanish colonization… a shared experience of immigrating to the United States, and experiences of racialization in the United States.”3
Because I am a Latino who is one quarter White, any clear definition of race, and ultimately belonging, has been smeared and blurred, like taking a hand across chalk on a blackboard. You see, my mother is full Latina, while my father is half and half like myself. Thanks to this I always mused or reasoned that I am three quarters Latino and only a quarter White.
Essentially, I don’t have a set race thanks to my mostly Latino blood, but then I do, as that last quarter of DNA is White. It’s a tricky thing. I may know of my ethnic origins, but overall my identity, as far as race is concerned, is far from binary, far from clear, and far from sorted out by myself at twenty-seven years of age.
Checking the race box on any application is cumbersome and sees me staring at a form longer than I should. I know if I check “Hispanic/Latino” I’m more likely to be overlooked than if I check “White.” On my honor, though, I can’t bring myself to check White, but to keep myself from hurting my chances, I instead opt for “Choose not to self-identify” or any of its variations. The government wants to write us off as White, companies want to keep us in a simple box, but it is so much more nuanced than that.
That amounts to convenient erasure, which further tangles the web of identity for me and many like me. It doesn’t bother some, as they can walk between two cultures. I don’t feel that way.
At times I hate myself for not being Spanish enough, for being mixed at all, though I didn’t choose this. I grow weary of walking between worlds, and I have longed to belong to one set group and just have it over with. My mixed race saw that I always, interestingly, surrounded myself with smatterings of friends in different racial groups (Puerto Rican, Colombian, Chinese, Polish, Albanian, Dominican, Black).
Instead of belonging to one group, was I a part of them all? There was beauty in that, I believe. Even still, I always felt a disconnect within myself. I was born and raised in New York in a predominantly Latino community, with all the trappings of an urban youthful upbringing. I ate predominantly Latino food, never European or German cuisine. However, I didn’t speak Spanish, which my grandmother was always bitter about. These direct experiences are why I closely identify as Latino instead of White, but of course, Latino is not a race. Ultimately, this is a hurdle which I can only overcome over time through further life experience.
There was a documentary series on Vice called Hate Thy Neighbor in which the host travels around America to illustrate that racism is still very much alive today (as if the past four years weren’t confirmation enough). The first episode documented White nationalists/neo-Nazis in the Midwest (I forget which exact state).
At one point the host, a mixed-race man himself, asks the Nazi he’s been following what exactly is the problem with mixing races. The man explains that ultimately, children who are two races will experience an identity crisis at some point in their life, that they wouldn’t know exactly where they will belong. Loathe as I am to admit it, that described me very much. I wish what he said hadn’t resonated with me like it had.
These days I like to reason that I’m the beginning of a new future. What exactly does this mean? That there will be more that look and feel like me – biracial – but without the sense of disconnect from their cultures, from people.
How can this be and what would that look like? It would mean amalgamating race through more multiracial or biracial children. If America has more who feel like me, who look like me, that’s a new group of people who feel less alone and more connected to a group of their own. I think the stage is being set for a future like this.
Michel Norris, for National Geographic, writes in her article, Visualizing Race, Identity and Change, a piece now seven years old, that “Identity is not always a concrete concept but rather something that is situational, or shifting, based on time, place, growth, or circumstance.”4
The whole of the article details what American faces will look like as time passes. It’s a beautiful glimpse, and the faces I see? I understand them, because they, like me, walk a space between racial and ethnic conventions. “Race is everything,” as my mother told me while we walked back to our humble apartment with our groceries in hand.
As she walked beside me and said that to me, I took a few beats to consider it, and replied to her, “But it shouldn’t be.”
Brandon has a BA in English from CUNY City College, and M.Sc. in Media and Communications from CUNY Brooklyn College. Born and raised in New York, and New York proud.
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