Something happened this week. There was a conversation about this cupcake protest and someone mentioned to me that if we all would just stop paying attention to race, racism wouldn't even be an issue. That the way to fight the system is to prove to people that we are more than our skin color. Fight the stereotypes, be successful, and then "they'll" like and accept us.
I didn't respond. I'd already told the person we'd just agree to disagree, but that comment? It's been bugging me since because people are still looking at my skin and my name and my sex as if they're bad things, as if they're the opposite of privilege. The thing is that if it's true that ignoring it and doing the "right thing" will prevent this treatment, I'm not sure where I've failed.
I've spent a lot of my life proving people wrong:
Third grade rolls around and they ask me to take a test to show that I speak English. Yeah, I'll do it. Let's ignore the fact that last year I took a test that put me in my elementary school's gifted and talented program; I'll go ahead and prove to you that I have mastered your language.
In middle school, I was in a special program for gifted and talented students and my English teacher told me that I was the smartest minority girl she'd ever taught. Um, what?
High school teachers and counselors steered me away from advanced classes - not in my HS in Germany, just the one in VA. I didn't listen, and took the classes anyway. I was in NHS and German Honor Society. Oh, and I studied German in high school, because my parents weren't going to let me study a language I already knew and spoke and it just made sense.
In my spare time, I get harassed by cops for walking around with my (Latino) friends at a football game and / or attending my (Latino) church youth group.
College. I came in with something like eighteen credits approved. I was part of my school's Honors program. I made dean's list almost every semester after my freshman year and graduated with a cumulative GPA of 3.7 or something like that. No "C's get degrees" for me. Oh, and my freshman year a girl flat out tells me, "I don't like you because you're Puerto Rican." Mmmkay... Thanks?
I graduated in five years, but only because I took a year and a half off in the middle: one year to volunteer and a semester to earn some money while working for the federal government.
I worked for three years as a Spanish teacher at a public school. I replied tactfully or shut up when my colleagues and / or superiors made comments about our immigrant students, or the "barrio" by the ESL classrooms (I wish I weren't quoting), or when people told me Puerto Ricans didn't know how to speak. Meanwhile, my Latino students were discouraged from taking advanced courses, being guided, instead to Auto Mechanics and Child Care. Security barged in to accuse one of my kids of vandalizing a bathroom when he'd been in my room the whole time. I saw two of my students being roughed up by cops for walking around in the evening. Oh, and this happened.
I went to grad school, and did really well, surprisingly enough. I cried my way through a Cross Cultural Skills class. I fell in love with a white man. I got stared at - not in a friendly way - when I went to the grocery store in my very white neighborhood. I was pulled over because a cop didn't think I should've been in my neighborhood at night.
I taught in Philly. I was told that "some students" shouldn't be held to the same standards, because, really, when were they ever going to use the information I was teaching them? Seriously?
So what I'm saying is that there's a flaw in this type of logic. I've done the right things. I'm well educated, well traveled, well read. I'm intelligent, middle-class, decently attractive. If I'm following the logic that being successful will make people ignore my skin and my heritage, then I should not be dealing with racism at all. Not ever. Not in my life, not in the lives of the people around me.
And yet, I've been yelled at to leave my own country, I've been told that my language isn't worth learning, I've dealt with the reality of being in a relationship with a white man, and I've been utterly exhausted by the dynamics of oppression.
What I'm saying is, I've played by the rules. I've done it even though it's hurt me and I sometimes wonder why I've had to give in and shut up and go along in order to be successful. Does it sometimes make me feel like I've sold out? Yeah, sometimes. But do I also think that I'm subverting the system in some way? Yeah. Put me in your stereotype box, sucker: I listen to country, salsa, and hip hop on the same playlist. But those rules? Those rules did NOT undo the system. It's going to take a lot more than that for me to, oh, I don't know, be paid the same amount as a white man in the same field.
What I'm saying is that I'm not going to feel guilty for believing that there's a system at play here and that said system goes beyond individual actions and beliefs. It's about the fact that people will react to my last name before they react to my educational background. It's about the fact that even though I have zero plans to have children, possible employers are worried about how soon I'm going to want to be on maternity leave. And I've done what I can, I've fought for myself and I've fought for others and I'll keep fighting.
It still matters. It's still important to note our privileges because we all have them. And you know what else is important? Finding ways to shed those privileges, or to subvert them, at least. And it's important that in the areas where we're at a disadvantage that we push and push and fight. And there will be tears and exhaustion and pain, but it's important. Because the sooner we recognize that there's a deeply flawed system at work, the sooner we can begin to live in opposition to it.
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