“¡Oy, chele!” or Why I Changed My Twitter Description or Racism is Stupid

Posted by – September 18, 2014

I joined Twitter in 2009. For the past five years, my description has read:

Chele, adj. In colloquial Nicaraguan, a light-skinned person.

This bears some explanation.

From 2002 to 2004, I served a mission for my church in Nicaragua. When most Americans think of Latin America, they think everyone is the same color, and that simply isn’t true. I met Nicaraguans who were nearly as white as I am, and some who were as dark as an African, and some whose ancestors actually were African.

In Nicaragua, people often refer to other people by their physical attributes. A woman might say “la bajita” when talking about her daughter if she happened to be short, for example. Skin tone is also used: people are “negro” (dark), “moreno” (middling), or “chele” (light). This is considered perfectly normal, and nobody is offended by it.

Most importantly, nobody cares what color your skin is. It’s as important to them as your hair or eye color is to the average American.

I’m white, so as you might imagine, everyone called me chele. People would shout it at me as I walked down the street in order to catch my attention. Again, this was perfectly fine.

At one point during my two years in Nicaragua, I had to create an email account and pick a username. I refuse to use numbers as a differentiator, so I had to find something unique. I settled on “cheleball”, a portmanteau of “chele” and the first part of my last name. I’ve used that username everywhere online ever since, and it’s never ever taken.

But of course, nobody in America knows what “chele” means, so I used my Twitter description as an opportunity to explain my handle. But I forgot something: I live in the US of A. True, I have lived my entire life trying to pretend that racism isn’t a thing anymore, that we’ve all put on our big kid pants and have stopped caring. The Ferguson shooting and subsequent cluster fluffle shocked me out of that illusion.

Imagine a white guy walking down the street in America. A black guy shouts at him, “Hey whitey!” to get his attention. What is the subtext of that shout? In Nicaragua, the subtext is that the black guy wants the white guy’s attention. In America…

I don’t want to give the impression that I care about the color of my skin, so I’m changing the description. And I’m making a public stink about it. No, I don’t think changing my Twitter description is a big deal, but I’m just so very tired of racism in this country that I had to get this off my chest. Thanks, as ever, for your indulgence.

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