I was born into a diverse background. I am half Cuban and half Irish. My appearance is light skin with dark eyes and hair; I have mixed features of both cultures. Because of this culture blend, I’m often assumed Italian or a different European country. I’m often told how lucky I am that I look white. My “passing” is seen as a blessing.
During Saint Patrick’s Day, a woman noticed I had an Irish pin on. Her eyebrows raised and she asked if I was Irish. I stated “Yes, I’m Irish.” and she patted her chest, “Oh thank God you’re not a sp*c.” Little did this woman know one of my parents was from a Caribbean island because she would have not felt so thankful. For her and many others, even with our nation’s President being of color, the best thing to be is white. As a child I was brainwashed by elders to think it was best that I appeared white. My family never commented on my appearance but when you’re a child and your friend’s parents or peers remark about it, it still effects you. When you’re a teen working at the local grocery store and multiple customers congratulate you for looking white, it sinks in. It wasn’t until recently that I learned this was a racist message being taught to me. Why should I feel blessed that I’m “white” and not any other color?
The “blessing” to be appear white is avoiding issues with cops, instantly getting the job you interview for, or being accepted by society. There won’t be someone with a stigma or prejudice about you because you are the “norm.” The problem is society portrays anyone who is not white as an “other.” This inequality has snaked its way through history into our modern society and has found insidious ways to systematically oppress the “other” while privileging the white.
White privilege even extends to language. Some colloquial phrases we innocently use have dark roots. For example, I’ve often used the phrase “Grandfathered in” while describing my phone plan and had no clue this phrase came from African American suffrage regarding voting in the late 1800s. Grandfathered in describes being exempt from a new rule. This term was created for African Americans who inherited the right to vote from their Grandfathers. If you were not born with this right, you could not obtain it without buying property.
We’d have to be a fool to think that racial inequality doesn’t exist or employers don’t select one race over another. There’s a famous quote by Frederick Douglass that I really connect with:
“Why don’t I have a jet car and live in Alpha Centuri by now? I think this is because the people that would have invented sky cars and interstellar travel were born black in Detroit, or in rural India or in the medina in Algiers in the 1950s, and spent too much time figuring out how to eat and not get killed to invent my damned sky car.”
This quote is over a hundred years old and still remains accurate when we look at massacres in Pakistan or poverty inequalities around our own nation. This racist mind frame has hindered where we could have been by now and where we could be.
If you see racist happenings and disregard them because it does not directly impact you, your silence is a huge factor in the oppression others face. Comments like “that’s just they way it is” or “I know it’s not right but that’s how my grandparents grew up” are unacceptable. This continued cycle of silence is why a 12-year-old boy was murdered over over a toy gun and why somebody’s father isn’t going to come home. It leads to others taking out their anger on innocent people. I don’t think Al Sharpton, Tupac, Kayne West, or many others would feel such pain and grief if they didn’t suffer from such severe systematic oppression.
If there was equality, we would not live in a world today where we accuse educated African Americans of “acting white” or say things like, “No, my friend is different, he’s a nice black guy.” These subtle conversations we hear at work or on the train are quiet and devastating additions to racism. We cannot change the horrors others face, but we can hold each other responsible when we witness ignorance and recognize our own personal responsibility to challenge their ignorance. The next time your co-worker or family member makes a remark about race negatively, firmly state that you disagree with this part of the conversation. You may receive a dirty look or get the “I’m not racist but…,” yet you will make them aware that their behavior has no place in your discussion. You should ask them why they believe these incorrect and ignorant notions and challenge them to rethink their problematic logic. All people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. There is no choice for anyone being born the race they are. Be an advocate for those silenced. Stand up for people everywhere. Let’s talk to each other about race. Let’s open up a discussion. Let’s challenge history. We’ve got this.