Navigating personal identity and privilege


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Photo credit: Henry Pratt

Photo by Henry Pratt

“What are you?”

It’s a question I’ve been asked more than once. They weren’t asking about my major or my class year. They were asking about my race and in a weirdly blunt way if you ask me.

I suppose, in a way, they were trying to be considerate. They wanted to know what kinds of experiences had formed my way of viewing the world. They were trying to be sensitive to my background to inform my place in society. But I often defy categories, not because I’m trying to (in fact I much prefer to remain unnoticed) but because my mother is white and my father is Latino of Mexican descent.

I am mixed, but I’ve always thought of myself as Latinx. Besides, that’s how most people I knew treated me while growing up. Not to say people treated me poorly or even very differently, but my difference was often pointed out to me: “Hey, you’re the only one in this math class who’s not white,” I’d be told. My middle school English teacher gushed about how “diverse” of a class she had, shooting glances at me and the other students of color in the room. The people around me reinforced my status as a non-white person, not in a negative way, but in a way that set me apart as an exception, a minority.

Of course, the reality is I am just as white as I am non-white. In the first TU Latino Association (TULA) meeting I ever attended during my first semester at Trinity, I realized that my difference stuck with me. I didn’t look very much like most other members in the room. I couldn’t speak Spanish like they did as they switched between languages with apparent ease. They didn’t treat me differently, of course, but I felt like an imposter, like the clean-cut identity of color that people had enforced on me was a sham.

Despite my calling myself Latinx, I learned that in the grand scheme of things, I carry a lot of privilege with me. I’ll never know what it’s like to have someone extremely close to me deported because my family has lived in this country for several generations now. I never had to deal with the difficulty of learning English at a later age. I also can’t ignore the fact that I am a straight man and will never know what it’s like to be discriminated against for my gender or sexual orientation.

That privilege does not come without its difficulties, of course. A classmate in high school once told me I was “pretty smart for a Mexican.” My white friends would sometimes jokingly call me a “beaner” as a strange sort of term of endearment. It’s a funny thing to be both the oppressed and the oppressor. But without recognizing both parts of myself, it is inaccurate and unjust to claim I am solely one or the other.

The truth is that I simply don’t share many experiences that other Latinx people do, and as a result, I should not pretend that I am without my own set of privileges. Not all who have privilege are white, but all who are white, including myself, have privilege. I must recognize where I can improve as an ally and work to understand the experiences of those who are different from me even if we have similar-sounding last names. We cannot excuse ourselves from the discussion of privilege even if we don’t fit cleanly into the straight white male archetype. We should evaluate our positions in our world and try to understand how we can help others.

You might think your privilege is non-existent, even if you are white, because you came from extreme poverty and worked hard for everything you have. But the fact of the matter is that society doesn’t see people in such cut-and-dry terms. The way you are perceived by some is not the same as by others. That does not mean your difficulties aren’t valid, but they demand recognition that certain parts of your identity made your life a little easier than it might have been otherwise.