We’ve invited some of our friends, colleagues and clients to talk with us, teach us, show us what we cannot see or know as we do not walk in their shoes.
Today, Karla Merrell is our guest blogger.
Please read and appreciate what she has chosen to share, a deeply personal story of remaining true to herself when feeling torn between cultures.
Thank you, Karla, for your wisdom and willingness to share.
Guest blog by Karla Merrell
I am a person who lives life in-between. I didn’t totally choose that, but here I am. Let me tell you a little bit about how I got here, what it feels like, and what I’ve learned to do to make in-between into a positive place to be.
I was born in Panama, where so many cultures blend that there really isn’t a “majority” or “minority” culture. You can have a Panamanian that looks like me, with dark hair and eyes and olive skin, and you can have a Panamanian who is fair-skinned, blond, blue-eyed with an English-sounding name. It felt like there was not so much “us and them,” there was just us.
In my 20s, I moved from Panama to live in Miami, and it was pretty much the same as Panama. There are people from everywhere. Even the people born in Miami have backgrounds from everywhere. There was not much culture shock for me in Miami. There were plenty of people who looked like me, who sounded like me, and who were immigrants like me.
Having Spanish as my native language did not make me different in Miami. There were many people like me, and I managed English better than a lot of them. In Miami, my background or skin color did not set me apart from the crowd. I didn’t have an experience of feeling different or less than anyone else.
Things changed three years ago when I moved to Palm City, Florida. It’s on what’s called the Treasure Coast and kind of in the middle of the state. And moving there put me in the middle in a way that I had never experienced before. I started learning what it was like to live “in-between.”
Palm City is pretty much a white community, especially the upper middle-class neighborhood where I live with my husband and children. So, right away, I looked a little different from most people in my neighborhood. That was a small awareness.
The first big shock of what it meant to be a minority came from my four-year old daughter. In her pre-school in Miami, she spoke Spanish. Her teacher was from Cuba and didn’t speak any English, so she did her learning in Spanish, and we continued that at home. When we moved to Palm City, my daughter came home one day and announced, “I don’t want to speak Spanish anymore. I just want to speak English.”
I was shocked. My daughter had always been bilingual, and I thought that was a good thing. It made her life richer, fuller, better. When I asked her why, she said that nobody else spoke Spanish or understood when she spoke Spanish, so she didn’t want to use Spanish. She just totally shut down, and from that point on, she totally refused to speak Spanish. For her, it was English only.
From that moment on, I began to realize just how much of a minority I was in my community. It was a shock – and a feeling that I had never really had before. Even as an immigrant in Miami, I never felt that different.
Here in Palm City, people will make more of a point and take more notice of my accent. Career-wise, this held me back for some time. Although I always wanted to do public speaking, I was afraid that people either wouldn’t understand me or would judge me…or that I would make mistakes. I was caught between my self-conscious fears and the impact I wanted to make in the world…the opportunities I wanted to provide for myself and for my children.
So, I took a leap of faith and just started speaking anyway. I accepted the fact that I was always going to be different…to have this accent. And I realized that I needed to accept myself before I could expect other people to accept me. I have stopped apologizing for my accent or my occasional mistake. And the public speaking part of my business has really grown.
The awareness of being different also hits home when I am out with my oldest daughter. She doesn’t look anything like me. She has blonde hair and blue eyes, and when we are out together, people are always surprised when they find out that she’s my daughter. The response is often, “oh, she must look like her father.” It wasn’t easy to know that these questions were going to come up when we met new people.
And then, the tragic death of George Floyd brought the issue of race into all of our lives and made me realize just how much I was living in the in-between space and how much responsibility I have to take for living successfully in that space and helping my children to do the same.
I noticed that there was very little diversity in the school my daughter attended. When I asked her if there were any African American students at her school, she didn’t know what I meant. When I explained that I was talking about Black students, she said that there was one “brown” girl. When she told me the name, I realized that she was talking about a girl who is Indian and not Black.
That conversation told me I had not prepared my children for life in America. My way of handling my difference – to just accept myself and act like the difference didn’t exist – wouldn’t work for them. And it made them unaware of the realities of race, racism, and prejudice in the world around them. In order to be the best parent to my children, I needed to not just push past my fears and difference, but to recognize and talk about what it means to be “in-between” in this world.
In-between means I am not from here nor from there (US and Panama). At this point I have lived most of my adult life in the US. My kids were born here, and my entire family is over there! I celebrate Mother’s Day here in May. In Panama, it is in December, so that’s when I call my own mother.
In-between means I don’t have the privilege of white skin or European heritage, but I do have the privilege of education and economic security. I don’t have the privilege of citizenship, but I do have the privilege of being able to live where I can send my children to good schools. I can’t imagine what it feels like to be Black in America, but I know what it feels like to be a minority — to be different from most of the people in my community.
I had pushed past my own self-limiting beliefs of being different or less than, and then acted as if I didn’t need to be concerned about racism — as though it didn’t even exist. This wasn’t really good for me or for my children. As people who live “in-between,” we need to be aware of what’s going on, to do the right thing both for ourselves and for people less privileged than we are.
In my business, I created a course on sales to support my event planning clients to create an event that would support their content. I teach them to create an event where attendees will have outcomes during the event that then encourages them to pursue a full solution by working with my client after the event.
With the pandemic, the live event portion of my business came to a full stop, both for my course and for my event planning clients. A stop that I hadn’t planned for. I knew that to keep my business alive, I had to make a quick pivot. To make public speaking, which had been a smaller part of the business, into an even bigger part. To top it off, I had to take the public speaking online. And I needed to do it fast!
The pandemic prompted me to E-scale to a full evergreen digital product so I could reach and help more women, a broader audience than I had served before. It seemed timely to provide a tool for entrepreneurs that needed clients now more than ever before. I modified my course so that it applies to all driven female entrepreneurs who need and want to get more clients fast.
I’ve always believed that I had a responsibility to contribute to the greater good. In my business, I’ve really had a chance to put those values to the test. Working day and night, my course was finally ready to launch and I set a date. June 2, 2020 was the big day.
Do you remember what happened that day? It was the media blackout day in support of Black Lives Matter. All across the country, people were going dark on social media – not posting anything at all, or just posting things related to the BLM movement.
I had a huge decision to make, and a huge risk to take. There was a huge sense that on that day, if you weren’t black, your job was silent support. Obviously, I am not Black. I am Hispanic. I support racial equality and justice. I support the movement., but I cannot fully understand what it means to be Black in this society.
I did some soul-searching and consulted some trusted friends and colleagues and made the decision to go ahead with my launch. I was sensitive to the goals of the movement and wanted to support the black community in the best way I could. It’s such a strange feeling to have roots in both places and none. Therefore, taking a stand on something that I didn’t grow up with (as we didn’t see that gross inequality based on race or skin color), but that is part of my US reality, didn’t feel authentic to me.
What guided my decision was going back to my mission and my values. It’s always been my intention to empower women, especially women business owners. I knew that because I could not fully understand the experience of being Black, I didn’t have anything to add to that conversation, but I had a lot to say to women in business and that included women of all races and colors.
I decided that I would help more in getting my course launched than I would in being silent for the day. I would help both in sharing my knowledge and by being an example of a successful woman of color in the business world. I could contribute by being an example of being aware and recognizing a need to improve my business and to do what it takes to accomplish that.
I respect people who made a different decision for that day, wherever they were coming from. In making my decision for the launch and for how I conduct my business and my life, I wanted to do my part to fight racism and injustice.
I chose what I saw as the greater good, helping other women, including immigrants and Black women, the way I know best how: letting my story and my legacy be an example of what I want for other women. By talking less and doing more. I could have made my statement with a black screen on June 2. But that would have been a one-day thing that didn’t really make much difference for anyone.
Instead I decided to make my small but significant contribution that day and for the future by living out my values. I’ve realized that I can do my part in three ways:
- Educate my family. – To teach them their heritage. To remind them that although they look white, they are both white and Hispanic. That they are different and to treat that difference in a positive way and to treat people of all kinds and colors with dignity and respect. To never abuse their privilege or take it for granted.
- Honor my heritage – To remember where I came from and to respect my unique experience. To recognize the internal struggle I had when I was afraid my accent would hold me back and to celebrate knowing that the first attitude I needed to change was my own. Once I conquered my own limiting beliefs, the beliefs of others were less of a challenge.
- Support women in business – When I open opportunities to all women, I contribute to eliminating economic barriers between people of different races and circumstances. I am a success as an example and as a source of opportunity for other women.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers. Other people may make their contributions to the world in different ways. As someone who lives “in-between,” I can see the view from both the majority and the minority perspectives, and that is an asset. I work to be aware of my experience so that I can use it to benefit others.
What I know is that I am responsible for doing my best – for myself, my family, and for the world. When I start by honoring myself, I build a foundation for my children and for the women I am meant to serve. That is my role and my responsibility. It’s my passion and my purpose.
Karla Merrell, HMCC
Speaker and Marketing Strategist