I can’t quite remember at what age I realized I wasn’t “white.”
I grew up in a largely Italian American community. As an ethnically ambiguous person I was often afforded white skin privilege. For the most part people seemed to assume I was Italian, and if they didn’t, not many people spoke about it. In some respects this protected me from outright bigotry. It also meant a sort of erasure of my own cultural identity.
But passing as white did not make me immune to the offensive and outright racist comments that inevitably came up. It was the 90’s in the suburbs of New York City, and though it was no longer socially acceptable to be overtly racist, racial and ethnic micro-aggressions were everywhere.
One year at the Columbus Day parade, a man in a Columbus costume told my diverse Girl Scout troop that it “looked like some of these brownies had been in the oven too long.” In 2nd grade one of the boys told me I looked like a monkey without my glasses. In 4th grade on the bus, a girl pointed to a bumper sticker that read Proud to be Mexican and loudly scoffed, “Why would anyone be proud to be Mexican?” I heard countless variations of the idea that all “Mexicans” were gardeners, or dirty, or lazy. How quickly I learned that in nice suburban neighborhoods, brown meant ‘less than.’
I was a tiny multiethnic spy in the land of white privilege, and somehow to my core I knew I never quite belonged. I knew it was different that my father swore in Spanglish when he got really angry, or that my mom’s commanding “siéntate” meant business. I knew I was different when Grandma Elvira would come visit us from Florida with her heavily accented English and spend hours on the phone speaking in Spanish with her friend Inéz. I knew it was different that mom and I recorded songs about el coquí to send to my great-grandfather in Ponce.
These and other cultural mementos formed the basis of my understanding of my Latina heritage during my childhood. Both my parents are mixed, the children of inter-ethnic marriages in the early 50’s. My mom is half Puerto Rican, and my father half Mexican. Separated from the larger Latino communities in the area, and with scattered family, my own sense of latinidad was disenfranchised. Surrounded by white people who looked not dissimilar to myself with tan olive skin and dark hair, I began to subconsciously align myself with whiteness. It would take years for me to see the full mosaic of my cultural heritage.
Alongside my ethnic education, I was learning the official story of our “land of the free.” In elementary school I was given a rudimentary introduction to the Civil Rights Movement. I remember the confusion I felt, the disbelief that anyone could treat another human with hate and disrespect because of the color of their skin. I didn’t understand why color mattered.
I wondered what I would have done if I had been alive during the Civil Rights Movement. Would I have marched? Would I have protested? In my naïve mind I would have been standing in support of the oppressed, not yet realizing that I was a member of that community myself.
By the time I was in high school I began to learn the subjective nature of history. In AP US History I learned about the slaughter and subjugation of indigenous peoples by early colonizers. Suddenly the bigoted comments of the man in the Columbus costume from my childhood seemed appropriate to that legacy.
In many ways though, it wasn’t until college that I realized just how non-“white” I was. I was suddenly surrounded by the biggest percentage of fair-skinned people I had ever encountered. In my progressive East Coast liberal arts bastion of intelligence and critical thinking I was the kind of person who got put on a brochure to espouse the institutions commitment to "diversity." Still, it was here that my personal and academic history lessons began to intersect.
I studied Latin American Studies, and learned more about the language and history of my ancestors than I ever had in public school. I learned that my displaced brand of identity is part of a deeply rooted legacy of racial and cultural colonialism and mestizaje. Perhaps most importantly, I learned how to speak the truth of my own experiences as a mestiza.
My history lessons continue today. As I navigate a world that is most assuredly not “post-racial,” I have begun to realize with a greater sense of clarity that we are writing the history books of our progeny today with our action and our inaction.
As black and brown men and women are shot in the streets, as the deaths of transwomen (especially transwomen of color) are commonplace, as undocumented immigrants are exploited and abused, as women have yet to achieve wage equality, as gay marriage is now federally recognized but LGBTQ people can be fired for their queerness in 32 states, how can we possibly say the struggle is over?
My childhood question is no longer hypothetical. I can no longer wonder “what would I have done?” I must instead ask myself “what will I do today?” We must all ask this of ourselves.
Of course, this can be an especially overwhelming question to consider. Without an excess of money, time, or resources, taking action can seem a daunting task. How do we rise? How to we make something better for the generations to come?
There is a notion of being “all talk.” In truth, many actions must be taken to move us forward as a society. Humanity exists on the threads of a tapestry being woven, ever in motion. We may skip a stitch occasionally, or unravel bits of progress, but it is only through collaboration that we may continue. No one thread is more vital to the weaving. Likewise, there are many ways to take action. Some seek political recourse, some take to the streets, some create art, some tell stories, and we all talk.
In this arena I have found a useful application for the intersection of my privilege and my experience as a woman of color. At my core I am a storyteller, and that is just what I do. I can take all my experiences, all the confusion and micro-aggressions, and form them into something meaningful. Over the years I have seen subtle shifts in the attitudes of some of my white friends regarding race and, while I certainly do not take credit for the shift, I know that maintaining a relationship in which we talk about the hard stuff contributes to forming a habit of critical thinking.
I recall a conversation I had recently with a white, straight, cismale coworker of mine. In many ways he has what might be considered the trifecta of social privilege. And yet his nose crinkled in discomfort at the word. He quite earnestly expressed that he didn’t feel this had ever given him any undue advantage in life.
So we chatted about that.
I shared my perspective that privilege is not always about what is given to you, but often about what is not taken from you. Things like the ability to walk safely in public seem like something that should be a given in the United States in 2015, and yet a significant portion of the population does not take that privilege for granted.
When we finished our conversation he thanked me. He had never thought to see the world that way, frankly because he had never had to. As a queer, multi-ethnic woman I have no choice but to consider these things.
We both learned from each other: He left the conversation with insight into a different way of existing in the world. I left it with a better understanding of the ways in which our own privilege is truly a blind spot.
Conversations like these are vital to moving ideas forward.
In critically examining our place in the world and speaking truthfully about our experiences, we make small shifts to guide the direction of our broader cultural discourse. It starts with listening, really listening; the kind of listening that sends a prickle up your spine. Any democracy must be based first on our ability to listen, and then on the gumption to speak with honesty.
Yes, it will be uncomfortable. No individual is entirely privileged or oppressed, and learning your own privilege can be unnerving.
In school we learn that we earn what we have. The rags to riches mythology of extreme economic and social mobility has become a basic tenant of American society. Learning that hard work is not always enough for those who lack privilege can unsettle our sense of self. We want to believe that if and when we have good things it is because we have earned them. But this discomfort is productive if we can allow ourselves to sit with it. Indeed if we are not prepared to dismantle our assumptions about our place in the world, we have not truly learned our instrument.
Human beings possess one of the greatest privileges of all - the ability to intricately and meaningfully exchange ideas. This exchange of ideas has been essential to our advancement as a species. Through everyday conversations I have learned to appreciate the world from multiple perspectives, and I believe that has advanced me as an individual. It has helped me find the small actions I can take in my life to make this the kind of world I can be proud to be a part of.
The greatest history lessons I have ever learned are the testimony of so many remarkable individuals, each with their own set of experiences. The greatest history lessons are those I have yet to learn.
Jessica DeBruin is a writer and actress living in Los Angeles, dedicated to creating feminist, queer-inclusive art and media.