A Six-Year-Old’s Identity Crisis

Young me, enjoying some food whilst extensively contemplating the meaning of my life.

My identity crisis started at age six. 

I was sitting in my first grade classroom when a kid asked me why I had my hair gelled back in a tight ponytail. 

“To straighten it, dumbass,” I answered, except I didn’t say the dumbass part because I was only six.

This was a normal routine for me. Once a week, my mom would wash my hair and try her best to straighten it without using heat, hence the gel and the tight ponytail. She told me I needed to look like the other kids so I wouldn’t get made fun of. I was taught this was what a girl with Dominican hair must do. 

My grandma, mom, and me, on a gondola in my hometown, Las Vegas.

As I got older, gel and tight ponytails did not tame my hair in the slightest. Around age nine, my mom started straightening it with a flat iron herself. And when I turned 14, I began my weekly trips to the Dominican hair salon.

The first time I entered that salon was horrifying. I knew how stupid I must have looked. A blue-eyed, fair-skinned girl with what looked like straight hair — who wouldn’t utter a word of Spanish — had just asked to have her hair washed and straightened. The stylists looked me over, doubtful. 

“She’s just very gringa, it’s from her dad,” my mom assured them in Spanish.

The moment my head hit the shampoo bowl the stylist swore.

“Carajo! She is Dominican!”

This brings me to my identity crisis that started at age six.  My dad’s side of the family are white Green Bay Packer fans from Wisconsin. My mom’s side of the family are brown and all born and raised in the Dominican Republic. But, I don’t really look like my mom. My nose, lips, and hair are the only exceptions. But, when I straighten my hair, I pass as a fully white girl.

At 6 years old, I started to realize that the other kids didn’t do the same things I did to my hair because they didn’t have hair like mine. But, I still looked similar enough to a lot of my classmates at my predominantly white school. 

My dad and me at Disneyland.

Because of this, I had no idea where I belonged or what I was. I ended up feeling too white to be Dominican, not only from my fair skin and eyes, but also from the people who surrounded me. I ate mostly American food, listened to American music, and never learned how to speak Spanish fluently at home. 

This identity crisis only worsened at Dominican hair salons. I never knew what to do with myself there. I always wished that my mom had taught me Spanish, maybe so I could feel like I knew something about my heritage. So that I could feel like I belonged. Even so, that didn’t stop me from going. I went every week to straighten my curls, feeling like an embarrassing excuse of a Dominican every time.

My junior year of high school marked my first decision towards my identity crisis: I wanted to try to wear my hair naturally for once and embrace my Dominican side. Ironically, this was unheard of to my mom. 

Dominicans are known for doing hair. Rollers, dryer, repeat next week. I couldn’t tell if it was a bigger slap in the face to my culture to straighten my hair or to not straighten my hair. I knew my mother’s concerns came from a good place. She was teased when she immigrated to the US for her hair and didn’t want the same to happen to me. But I wanted to try. 

So I left it curly. And I hated it. I had no idea how to style it correctly. I didn’t have the right products or tools. It was a catastrophe. I marched right back to the hair salon to fix it.

Fast forward a few years and I’m a sophomore in college who wears her hair curly every day. It took me the entire fall semester to figure out how to do it right, especially in the California air, which is much more moist than the dry Vegas heat where I grew up. 

The real question is: what changed? Do I finally feel comfortable embracing my hair-itage (I’m sorry, I couldn’t help it)? Do I feel like I can finally own my curls? Or is it the fact that there are no Dominican hair salons in Orange County? Not even I could tell you at the moment. 

Where was I going with this column/rant? Unsure. My identity crisis is far from over. In fact, 20-year-old me is still in it. Right now. As I type this. Will it ever go away? Who knows. Either way, I’m proud to be a biracial first-gen college student with blue eyes and a Dominican nose navigating where she belongs in life. 

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Zetta Whiting is a sophomore English major with an emphasis in journalism and a dance minor. In her free time, she enjoys reading fiction, watching action movies, and eating seafood.