Julissa Arce rejects assimilation in 'You Sound Like a White Girl' : It's Been a Minute A school crush once told Julissa Arce that she sounded "like a white girl." At the time, Arce believed that was exactly what she wanted. But over the years, even after perfecting "accent-less" English, graduating from college, getting a job at Goldman Sachs, and becoming an American citizen, Arce still felt like she didn't belong. Instead of just trying to fit in as the solution, Arce began to question whether that was the very problem to begin with. Elise Hu talks to Arce about her new book — You Sound Like a White Girl — and the case for rejecting assimilation in favor of embracing yourself, your history, and your culture.

Rejecting assimilation in 'You Sound Like a White Girl'

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ELISE HU, HOST:

Hey, y'all. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Elise Hu.

JULISSA ARCE: I was born in Taxco, Guerrero, Mexico, which is 3 hours south of Mexico City. It's this beautiful town set on a lush, green mountain. And I moved to the U.S. when I was 11.

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HU: This is Julissa Arce.

ARCE: And when I was 14, my visa expired. And that's when I became one of the 11 million undocumented people in this country. I remained undocumented for many years until I married. And because my husband was an American citizen, I was able to become an American citizen.

HU: Julissa spent most of her young adult life trying to assimilate. She learned English, went to college, got a job on Wall Street. But despite everything, there were always moments where she felt like she didn't belong - in school, at work, in everyday life. That is until Julissa realized, as she writes about in her new book, she was really running a race without a finish line. And she argues the idea of assimilation is actually designed to keep people of color and immigrants aspiring to something we'll never achieve - being white.

Julissa's book is called "You Sound Like A White Girl: The Case For Rejecting Assimilation." And at the very beginning of our chat, I asked her where that title came from.

ARCE: So when I was in high school, this boy that I had a crush on told me that I sounded like a white girl. And he didn't mean it as a compliment, but I took it as one. I was excited to hear that somebody thought I sounded like a white girl because at that point in my life, I very much wanted to be like the white girls in my school. And it's interesting to think how that same phrase - you sound like a white girl - was later on also used against me within my own community, where people would say, you sound like a white girl as a way of not sort of fully fitting into my own culture. So there's sort of a double meaning for me with that phrase.

HU: But when you were young, you took it as a compliment. Why?

ARCE: Because when I moved to the U.S. when I was 11 from Mexico, the big thing was learning how to speak English. And after I learned how to speak English, the big thing was get rid of your accent, right? You have to sound a specific way in order for your English to be truly acceptable. So I would stand in front of a mirror and try to enunciate my words in the way that the white girls at my school did. And I would imagine that the person talking back to me was a beautiful blonde white girl because those were all the images - not just at school but, you know, when I thought about what does an all-American cheerleader girl look like? They never looked like me. And, you know, when you're 14, you want to fit in. You want to have friends. You want to feel like you belong someplace. And I thought that the answer to belonging came through assimilating.

HU: Yeah. I mean, I'm much like you. I am the daughter of immigrants also. And I grew up in pretty lily-white Plano, Texas. And - so we're both Texans. And I didn't even know it was called assimilation. For me, I think it was kind of a matter of survival, just to fit in.

ARCE: Yeah. Yeah. Very much so.

HU: And this English part is huge. You talk a lot in your book about how your parents, especially your dad, had some accented English. And you mentioned a scene in the restaurant where the cashier - when he didn't understand your dad, your dad's whole body language changed. What did you take from that?

ARCE: I took away from that that English could crush you. I mean, looking at my dad, you know, who was - who I viewed him as this sort of, like, strong man, this sort of, you know, anchor for me in many ways. And to see him shrink - I mean, it was - I just saw the confidence come out of his face. And he looked smaller to me, that he was trying to speak English and that this woman couldn't understand him. And it was already hard enough for my dad to speak even in - you know, not that it was hard for him to speak in Spanish, but he was just a quiet kind of guy. And so to see that happen to him really hurt me, especially because I felt this helplessness because I didn't speak English at that time, either. So I couldn't - as I say in the book, I couldn't step between him and the racism that he was receiving in that moment.

HU: Can you describe what it was like going to school? You know, obviously, I'm not asking you to go to a really dark place, but just to kind of paint a picture for us of being - you know, you must have been - what? - like, in sixth grade - sixth or seventh grade and having - being in a completely different environment but also thrown into a place where people spoke a language that wasn't native to you.

ARCE: Yeah. And it was both about the language, but it was also about what my lack of English signaled or meant to even my teachers. I've - since I was little, I've always liked school. I've liked getting good grades because there's sort of, like, a payoff of - I studied, and here is a grade for it. And so I took so much pride in earning good grades in school. And then coming to the U.S. not speaking English, I would fail open-book tests because I didn't know the language, and my teachers - not all of them. Some of my teachers treated me as though, because I didn't speak English, I wasn't smart. And I started to feel like, well, maybe I'm not smart because if I don't speak English, then how can I be smart? So my intelligence was tied to my ability to speak English, where now I can say I speak two languages, and that gives me more intelligence...

HU: Right, right.

ARCE: ...Because I can think in two languages. I can write in two languages. I can speak in two languages. And isn't that beautiful? And I just wish that we would treat more English speakers in that way, that we would encourage them instead of shaming them for not speaking English.

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HU: Coming up, the illusion of belonging and why assimilation can be a trap.

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HU: Just earlier, you were talking about how proud of being able to be bilingual you are. But for a lot of Latinos in America, you're asked kind of both, why don't you speak English, but also, why don't you speak Spanish? The Castro twins, the politicians from Texas, are an example. I think that they're multi - what? - like, seventh-generation Texans or something like that. And yet, when Julian Castro was running for president, there were lots of questions about, hey, why aren't you a fluent Spanish speaker? (Laughter).

ARCE: Yeah. I mean, it's a real double-edged sword. And, you know, part of what I talk about in "You Sound Like A White Girl," I give this story of Julian Castro, but then I provide some historical context - right? - as to why so many Latinos in America don't speak Spanish. And the context for that, the history behind it, is that in the, you know, '20s, '30s, '40s, '50s, (laughter) '60s, there were rules against speaking Spanish in school. Kids would be physically punished for speaking Spanish on school grounds. And so Latinos, specifically Mexican Americans in the Southwest, faced a lot of discrimination, real physical violence against their bodies for speaking their mother tongue. And so the generation that came after them, their parents didn't want their children to speak Spanish because of the discrimination that they faced, and they thought that maybe they could spare them that discrimination.

HU: That goes back to that idea earlier, where assimilation is kind of a matter of survival. I meant it in terms of social survival, just being able to belong and feel included in high school or middle school. But in this case, speaking Spanish could invite violence, if not worse, right? (Laughter).

ARCE: Yes.

HU: So assimilation really was about literal survival.

ARCE: Yes, absolutely.

HU: But you have come around on this idea of assimilation. What - and have written the case for rejecting assimilation. What does assimilation mean to you, just for starters, before we get to what's problematic about it?

ARCE: Assimilation to me has meant giving up a part of my very soul in order to have the illusion of belonging in America.

HU: Illusion - say more about that.

ARCE: It's an illusion because in my experience, I did assimilate in many ways. I speak English the way that I do. I went to college. I graduated with honors. I had a prestigious job on Wall Street. I had, quote-unquote, "become a productive member of society."

HU: (Laughter).

ARCE: You know, I paid taxes, and I gave back to my community, and I did all of the things that were asked of me. And I still had these experiences, as I mentioned in the book, of eating at a fancy restaurant with my white colleagues, going to the bathroom and, on the way back, a table of white people asking me to bring them water because they thought I was the server. Or one of my very first meetings, meeting a client when I worked at Goldman Sachs and him asking me to bring him coffee because he thought I was the assistant. So there are places in this country and there are people in this country who will always see people like me and think that we belong someplace else, that we are foreign. And that's one of the biggest cases and things that I point to in the book. I was born in Mexico. You know, I do have another home, but there are many Latinos who have never been immigrants to this country. And yet, no matter how many generations we have been here, the question of where are you from...

HU: Yes (laughter).

ARCE: ...From...

HU: Yes. I still get that.

ARCE: ...Will always come up.

HU: Yes (laughter).

ARCE: You know, and I mean, I kind of feel like the - yeah, there's just so much in that second from (laughter).

HU: Where are you really from?

ARCE: Right - really from.

HU: So you describe this kind of trap - right? - that assimilation forces a choice between success as it's defined in America, and then our souls, our cultures, the cultures of our parents. But did your parents see the same kind of trap? It sounded, reading the book, that they really believed that anything could be possible in the U.S.

ARCE: Yeah. My mom, especially, is a big believer in the American dream. You know, she instilled in me and my brother that if you worked hard and you stayed out of trouble, anything could be possible. And for a long time, I subscribed to that idea. And it wasn't until I started having all this other experiences that the rose-colored glasses through which I once saw America came off. And I understand my mom, and I don't judge her because for her, you know, survival was the thing. And she was just thankful to be here, just thankful that she had the opportunities that she had, where I have the privilege of being thankful and at the same time being critical of the country that is my home.

HU: When did you start seeing things critically, do you think? Is there a moment that you recall or a series of moments?

ARCE: It's definitely been a series of moments, but I think a really big defining moment and a day that I will never forget is August 3, 2019...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Police in El Paso, Texas, say they're responding to an active shooter situation. They're warning people to avoid the area of...

ARCE: ...When 23 people, mostly Latinos, were killed at a Walmart...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: It happened at a Walmart near Cielo Vista Mall this morning about 10 a.m. local time.

ARCE: ...Because this white man was protecting his country from a Hispanic invasion. And I saw it so clearly that day. It wasn't about whether we were in this country legally. It wasn't whether about we had assimilated, whether we spoke English, whether we were veterans. None of it mattered. What mattered was that we were, in his mind, Mexicans who didn't belong in this country. And I just thought, why are we doing all of this? And why are we denying ourselves the beauty of our own culture, a culture that can be seen in every corner of America?

HU: And Julissa, we've talked a lot about assimilation in terms of language and language loss. What are some other ways that you've seen assimilation negatively work in your life?

ARCE: I think the other coin of assimilation, it's - you know, you sort of give up all of this parts of yourself, and you start to believe the lies of assimilation. And when I looked back historically and saw all the attempts, the failed attempts of my community to belong in America, it also did so much harm to us, and it ruptured many ties with other communities because we were always aspiring to whiteness. And so we were always trying to distance ourselves from Black Latinos, from Indigenous Latinos. We were trying to say, you know, the farther we are from them and the closer we are to whiteness, the more we'll be protected. And that has never worked out in our favor, not once. It has always...

HU: Yes, yes.

ARCE: ...Backfired.

HU: Right, right. Totally. I mean, I relate to this so hard because in the Asian community, it's this myth of the model minority, which is also, you know, about proximity to whiteness, which has really stopped a lot of my community from showing up in solidarity for Black Americans, for example, or Arab Americans and other communities.

ARCE: Yeah. And to me, it's like, I don't want to be accepted, and I don't want to be included. I don't want to be - I don't want somebody to view me as human because they can view me as white.

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HU: Stay with us. Coming up, how things are starting to change, and Julissa's hope for the future.

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HU: Are things starting to change? Do you feel like there's pockets where people who are growing up - you know, the Gen Z-ers (ph) today and who are people of color are refusing to assimilate to make white people comfortable. And where is that change showing up? How is it showing up?

ARCE: It's absolutely happening, and it is so beautiful to see. I see it everywhere around me. I give a couple of small examples in the book of, you know, some famous Latinos who are thriving, not because they've crossed over, but because...

HU: (Laughter).

ARCE: ...They realize that Latinos are a mainstream audience. And it's beautiful to see young brown girls really exert their brownness without apologizing for it. I learned so much from them (laughter).

HU: And you're seeing that just among teenagers today, just in...

ARCE: Yeah.

HU: ...Regular culture?

ARCE: Just among, like, young people. I mean, I even see it, you know, with my nephews. Like, my 15-year-old nephew - like, he listens to Chalino Sanchez. Like, that's his - you know, that's who he's listening to. You know, he's not worried about walking into white spaces and feeling uncomfortable because he just is, and he just - he already feels like he belongs in every room he walks into.

HU: Where are you seeing that for yourself? Where are you letting yourself just be without assimilating?

ARCE: Everywhere now.

(LAUGHTER)

ARCE: And it also means about, you know, speaking up when in other times I would have just smiled and kept quiet, and in that smile would have been the anxiety running through my body, the fury that was brewing in my heart. There's an example I give in the book of being on a Zoom call during lockdown...

HU: Yeah.

ARCE: ...In what was supposed to be a panel celebrating diverse women. And there were white women on the panel. And one of them made a comment about Michelangelo and Raphael and all of these artists that we know by first name and how Europe was having the Renaissance while America had not even been discovered.

HU: (Laughter).

ARCE: And I sat in my chair thinking, what do I do? I don't want to be that person, you know, who makes it awkward, who makes this uncomfortable because this is a celebration. But then I thought, if I don't speak up, she's going to continue to think that America was waiting to be discovered, as though we needed white people to come save us. And everybody who's in the audience - and there was over 1,000 people logged into the Zoom - is going to come away with that thought. So I spoke up. And by the way, at the end of speaking up, I was shaking. I was shaking, and I was sweating. And I was very uncomfortable because that's not something that I had been used to doing before.

HU: Yeah, yeah. It took a lot out of you.

ARCE: It took so much out of me. And, you know, I think there's also a power sometimes in both speaking up and then at times choosing to conserve my energy in not explaining things.

HU: What ultimately is your more affirmative vision for America because it's certainly not assimilation, the way things used to be?

ARCE: No. My hope is that my children - and I don't have any children at the moment, but (laughter) if I do ever become a mom - that they will be similar to what my nephews are experiencing, that they will feel like they get to keep the things about their culture, the things that ground them in their spirituality, in their customs, in their traditions - that they get to keep all of that, and that if they want - and only if they want and only if it fits them and it serves them and it uplifts them - that they can also attain and experience a different culture. Having said that, I also think that, you know, we have to recognize all the ways in which, like, Latino culture and Black culture and Asian culture, like, all of these other cultures, like, they are American cultures, too, you know? Like, so my biggest hope is that none of us - you know, none of us get to dictate how other people are American.

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HU: A big thank you again to Julissa Arce. Her new book is "You Sound Like A White Girl: The Case For Rejecting Assimilation." This episode was produced by Jinae West with help from Andrea Gutierrez. It was edited by Jordana Hochman, and we have engineering support from Gilly Moon.

All right, listeners, don't forget - this Friday, we're back with another episode, and we want to hear the best thing that happened to you all week. Record yourself and email the file to ibam@npr.org. That's ibam@npr.org

All right. Until Friday, thanks for listening. I'm Elise Hu. We'll talk soon.

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