Long Island’s history has been known for being notoriously white. In fact, about 82% of the island’s residents are white. For those left over, it’s a struggle to not get lost in such a large number. Growing up on Long Island as a person of color causes you to go through a white-washed cycle— one that strips your culture and ethnic background. It takes a toll on who you are, and where you feel you belong. It creates shame, doubt, guilt— even hatred towards one’s ethnicity. This is known as Imposter Syndrome.
In today’s society, about 50% of people of color are either first or second generation. Despite being born into this country that they call home, most first and second generation kids notice the difference between themselves and their peers from an early age.
“I noticed the difference between myself and my peers right when I started elementary school,” said second generation Dominican African American China Perry from Port Jefferson Station. “I went to predominantly white schools all the way up to high school, and from the start I was treated differently.”
Perry recalled a story from her primary school days that she will never forget.
“I can remember a time when my dad had just done my hair in box braids and we had matching beads,” said Perry. “I went to school and immediately a girl had asked me why my hair looked the way it did. I told her my dad did it, he told me it was to keep my hair safe while still looking pretty. She thought the beads were annoying and said my hair looked like burnt spaghetti. She had no problem letting me and the entire class know what she thought about my hair.”
She begged her mother to straighten her hair so that the negative attention would finally stopped.
“When I straightened my hair, nobody bothered me,” said Perry. “People actually liked it. Well, the white kids liked it. I kept on destroying my hair to be accepted. But as you can imagine, it never worked.”
Haris Khan, a 16-year-old student from Commack, felt similar pressure to change his appearance to appeal to his white classmates. He first noticed the difference between him and his classmates once hitting puberty.
“I noticed that I hit puberty way before the other kids,” said Khan. “I had like a whole beard my freshman year of high school.”
Khan recalls how his mother would praise him during those times for growing into his Pakistani traits. His peers at Commack High School though were not as accepting.
“People used to be like ‘Shut up you’re Indian,’ and do some dance to try and piss me off,” said Khan. “I tried dressing more like my friends and I shaved every day so I’d look more like them.”
Khan also stopped bringing lunch to school because his friends told him it smelled weird. It consisted of traditional South Asain food. Buying school lunch became an easier way to not get bullied.
Some POC are given warnings about the different treatment they might receive from their white peers, in hopes to better prepare them for the outside world. Harvard sophomore and East Setauket native Maya Peña-Lobel distinctively remembers the talk her parents had with her at a young age.
“I remember my parents explaining to me that I might be treated differently because of my name, my appearance or because I am female, but that I always had to be strong,” said Peña-Lobel. “As a kid, I didn’t fully understand this, but as I got older I became more aware of how I didn’t fit in. Being of a mixed-race background, but growing up in a white community— I felt that I didn’t quite fit in as white or Latina. Calling myself white seems like an insult to my heritage, but calling myself Latina seems like I’m taking advantage of a label that doesn’t belong to me.”
First generation Commack High School graduate Alex Ramotar explained how she didn’t notice the difference between her and her peers until her teen years.
“A lot of my white friends had a lot more freedom to socialize and were invited out more often because of their preexisting family connections in town,” recalled Ramotar. “My parents were completely new. My dad immigrated from Guyana when he was in elementary school and my mom immigrated for college. They knew no one besides each other.”
With very apparent differences from those who surround you, it’s almost human nature to try and blend in with the crowd to not become a target of prejudice and negative attention.
“My family hid a good portion of their culture out of shame and the desire to fit in,” said Ramotar. “I’ve even tried making fun of my own culture to make friends laugh.”
Ramotar describes a defense mechanism she used growing up in Commack to try and smooth out the differences between her and her friends. Self-defeating humor is actually one of the most popular defense mechanisms between POC and white people. It’s a harmful practice that many minorities pick up in order to get acceptance from the majority.
“I had a period where I hated where I came from,” started Perry. “I constantly felt like I was lower than everyone else because of my roots. It caused me to have so much hatred towards myself and my culture.”
Language is often the barrier that connects POC back to their roots. But when you’re raised in a place such as Long Island where the majority speaks English, language can also be what separates you from your culture.
“I speak Urdu at home but not as much as I did when I was growing up,” said Khan. “It makes me a little sad because it feels like I’m losing a huge piece of my life the more and more I forget the language.”
Khan also described the incidents he experienced when his white friends caught him speaking Urdu on the phone to his dad.
“They got all weirded out and kept asking me what I was saying,” recalled Khan. “I was kind of embarrassed.”
As a Mexican-American with little Latinx family in the U.S, Peña-Lobel also feels the weight that language has on one’s cultural connection.
“I have often felt disconnected from my culture and speaking Spanish seemed like a way to connect,” said Peña-Lobel. “Becoming fluent in Spanish has been a goal of mine for the past few years. I sometimes feel guilty for not knowing some of the cultural stuff that I feel like I’m supposed to know. My grandfather who was in the Mexican Cavalry, unfortunately died before I could get to know him better. He flew planes and did cliff diving. I always wanted to ask him about those adventures. Before he died, he experienced some cognitive decline and sometimes reverted to only speaking in his native language. I remember wishing I could talk to him in Spanish in those moments, but I couldn’t.”
Language proves to be what either brings one closer to their ancestry, or what creates a divide.
Despite the many negatives that POC experience living on Long Island, most still feel the overwhelming pride that comes with who they are. As Perry put it:
“I learned to embrace and love my culture, because though it is different, it is something so unique and beautiful. I am proud to be a POC.”
The power in the community that exists among the minority groups on Long Island is and will always be riveting. No matter how lost one may feel in their identity, no matter how disconnected one may be from their traditions and values, Long Island’s POC continue to figure ways of empowering and extending their lineage, one generation at a time.