July 22, 2016
On Racism and Passing Privilege
I’m a light skinned Puerto Rican, and I used to be racist.
I didn’t know I was a racist, I never really thought I was. But when I called a relative out for saying that a friend’s dark-skinned, beautiful daughter should get a nose job and lip reduction to make her “prettier”, I was told that when I was about 3 years old, I saw Tracy Chapman singing “Fast Car” on our little TV, and reportedly I said: “Mami, pero que fea!”
Mommy, she’s so ugly.
Although African blood runs through my veins, Eurocentric standards of beauty had already been taught to me, and little sponge that I was, I had already absorbed them. But to grow up in Puerto Rico is to be surrounded by people of all colors. Going to school and making friends, all of us mixed in the playground, black, white and every shade of brown, olive, red and yellow in between. In school, we were taught that Puerto Ricans come from the mix of the Taíno Natives, the white colonizers, and the African slaves they brought with them. I later learned that Chinese laborers had also come to the Island, and that that kid we called “Chino” probably actually did have some Chinese genes.
I also learned, on my own, that the color of someone’s skin nothing to do with their character.
I was forced to confront my racism when I went to college, and started to develop a crush on Vince. He was smart, kind, played violin – or was it guitar? There was music, I know this much. He also spoke Spanish, and was the quarterback of the football team, and he looked a bit like Taye Diggs. But I stopped myself from pursuing him or showing any interest because I was concerned about how my family would react. When I had showed pictures of my first college boyfriend to my family, a white boy with dark blonde hair and blue eyes, they said “¡Qué bien, mejorando la raza!”
That’s great, you’re bettering the race!
What would they say if I showed them his picture? Now I know they probably would’ve said nothing, or “¡Qué negrito tan guapo!“, and they would’ve welcomed him. But there’d probably be no mention of “bettering the race”.
Most of my family is light skinned, though the sun’s kiss brings out the brown in us easily enough. You can see it in my paternal grandmother’s hair, texture 4B, kinky and crimpy, and soft like lamb’s wool. In the gene lottery that results from the mix of 3 races, I ended up with 2B, a soft wave that coils up into curls if the humidity is high enough, fine and thin. And fair skin, with a slight olive tinge to it, and a propensity to rosacea.
Since moving to the Midwest, the most common guess as to my ethnicity has been Italian or French, but I’ve also been asked if I was Russian, or Indian. Most people don’t even want to guess where my accent might be from, if they even hear it. Not once have I been pegged for a Puerto Rican, except by fellow Puerto Ricans, though they usually assume I’m white upon first spotting me and are startled when my Puerto Rican Spanish bubbles out.
I look white. I talk white, for the most part.
I’ve been accepted in spaces where I have seen my darker brothers and sisters be treated with suspicion. I heard some pretty racist stuff come out of some people’s mouth, and kept my mouth shut for fear of being ostracized. And it used to be that when I walked past black men in the street, I could feel the rush of adrenaline released by the fearful conditioning I was bombarded with since before I called Tracy Chapman “ugly”, ready to fly (fighting has never been my first choice).
I feel like I’ve come very far from where I was, though. The first step was to accept and confront the ugly truth that racist cultural conditioning actually had an effect on me. Not society, the amorphous, anonymous masses. Me.
The next step was to become very aware of the thoughts that come up because of this conditioning, and actively rationalize my way out of them. Those thoughts are not my own. They were planted there, and fed a steady diet of fear and misinformation. I resolved to feed them love and truth.
It’s amazing what this kind of conscious cognitive shift has done for me. Those Eurocentric standards of beauty I upheld as a 3 year old have gone out the window: I can see the beauty of black bodies in their natural state. Since discarding those ridiculous standards, I’ve noticed that there are a LOT of beautiful people in this world who can’t see the beauty in themselves, which is such a sad thing! I greet black folks as we walk past each other in the street, a neighborly “Good morning!” or “Good evening!”, and have found that the response of holding my purse tighter or crossing the street isn’t an automatic one anymore. I check any assumptions that might come up against what I know to be true, and try to get to know each person I encounter as an individual, not as a representative of any group of people at all, and treat everyone I encounter with respect and dignity.
This is my next step, the hardest: speaking out.
I no longer stay silent when ignorance and fear come out of anyone’s mouth. Now I try to broaden others’ perspectives as kindly and respectfully as I can. Tensions are high right now, but unfortunately that’s the only way this unjust system will be dismantled. We have to speak up.
To my light-skinned brothers and sisters: we are flying under the radar and spared the brunt of the pain and injustice that our darker kin are brutalized with. But we also know that there but for the grace of genetics go we. We must become visible, and not be complicit in our own erasure. Speak up. We all need to stand together, to remind everyone who doesn’t remember it that #blacklivesmatter.
Maybe Vince wouldn’t have been interested in my nerdy ass anyway, I found him on Facebook the other day, and saw he has a beautiful wife and children, so the missed opportunity was definitely on my end. Maybe he would’ve been the Love of my Life and I missed out BIG TIME, just because I was afraid. How dumb was that?