Living in the United States, I have never experienced what it is like to have my ethnic, racial, or national identity contested before. Unlike Americans of minority races, as a descendant of 19th century immigrant families from northern Europe, I’ve spent most of my life believing that I’m just a typical American woman. Being white is standardized in the U.S.—through Hollywood movies, history class, the media—and because of that, my racial and national identities weren’t something I really thought about until I got to college.
After answering the question “Where are you from?” on nearly a daily basis here, I have found that “the United States” is a less than thrilling response.
Experiencing White Privilege in China
The first time I was forced to acknowledge my race as part of my identity was this past summer, which I spent studying abroad in China. Suddenly, I was in the racial minority, but somehow being white still brought me even more privileges than it did in the U.S.: free entrance into clubs, requests for selfies on the street, and praise for my Chinese after a mere utterance of “nihao”. From this distinct treatment, I realized that being white is not, in fact, a neutral identity, and that my race has indeed profoundly shaped my life experiences thus far—and it will continue to do so wherever I am for the rest of my life. The novelty of this experience, and this realization, drove my ambition to go abroad again.
Buenos Aires: Racial Majority, Ethnic Minority
Studying abroad this semester in Buenos Aires is a much different experience—almost 90% of the local population is white according to World Population Review! I’ll admit, one of my aims for going abroad again was to immerse myself again in a different racial demographic, so I should have done more research before choosing Buenos Aires. Then I would have known about the massive waves of 19th century European immigration Argentina experienced—just like the U.S.! However, despite being a part of the racial majority again here in the capital of Argentina, my reddish-blonde hair, pasty freckled skin, and height still give me away: I’m not from here. It’s much more subtle than it was in China, but I can still feel the stares that linger just a little longer than normal.
And then there are the piropos. Piropos are an aspect of the machista culture here, where men call out flirtatious comments to women passing by. While any woman in Argentina will tell you she experiences them, I’ve noticed that when I’m walking around with one of my especially blonde friends, we receive a lot more piropos than I’ve ever gotten alone—that friend even started to wear a hood to escape the extra attention! While we both may belong to the racial majority here, neither of us belongs to the ethnic majorities—Spanish and Italian—and people can tell we look out of place.
Embracing My Irish Identity Abroad
My reddish-blonde hair, pasty freckled skin, and height still give me away: I’m not from here.
In the U.S. my appearance categorizes me as white, but in Buenos Aires, I’ve embraced that I’m also Irish. When people ask me my last name here, it’s never an easy answer—my last name, Slatery, is all but unpronounceable in Spanish. I’ve spelled it out, explained my Irish origins, and even engaged in some fun back-and-forths about how it sounds like something from a Harry Potter movie (hint: it was Slytherin). And I’m not complaining, but it is different from the U.S. where a last name of Irish origin, or someone who looks Irish, isn’t anything unexpected—where I’m just part of the standard. And what’s been more interesting than reactions to my last name have been reactions to my nationality.
After answering the question “Where are you from?” on nearly a daily basis here (despite my best efforts at an Argentinian accent) I have found that “the United States” is a less than thrilling response. From my experiences in China and Spain, being American was always met with excitement and curiosity, even admiration. Here, my answer is usually met with a nod, maybe the question of “what part?” or a comment of having been to Miami, and then we move on. At first, this contrast shocked me; I wondered if I’d imagined it or was maybe exaggerating.
I’m still piecing together my identity, and trying to figure out what it means to be white and American on both a national and a global scale.
But then I read about some of the intricate Argentina-U.S. politics from the later 20th century and talked with some of my Argentine friends, and it became clear that the U.S. just doesn’t have the best rep in Argentina. Of course, that hasn’t stopped my friend Bárbara from planning to study abroad in the U.S. next year, and it doesn’t make my teammates on the soccer team any less willing to pass me the ball—though my inability to score might do the trick. If anything, people’s responses to my nationality have made me all the more determined to give a good name to the U.S. while I’m here.
At the end of the day, it has been humbling (to say the least) to go from the U.S. where my racial and national identities never come into question, to China where I was stopped for pictures on the street and my home country was highly revered, to Argentina where being from the U.S. is nothing short of unremarkable. I’m still piecing together my identity, and trying to figure out what it means to be white and American on both a national and a global scale. But if there’s anything my travels outside the U.S. have taught me, it’s that my identity is not, and has never been, neutral.
Kelly Slatery is a graduate of the University of Virginia and studied with IFSA on the Argentine Universities Program in the Spanish Translation and Linguistics learning community in Buenos Aires, Argentina in spring 2016. She served as an International Correspondent as part of the Work-to-Study program.