When I was in high school, I wrote an essay for my 11th grade English class arguing that my ethnicity should be irrelevant in the university admissions process. I didn't think it fair that my Cuban heritage allowed me to apply for scholarships my white classmates couldn't qualify for.
While studying expository writing in that same English class, we read the works of Martin Luther King Jr. He influenced my opinions. I wanted to be judged not by the color of my skin but by the content of my character. I wanted to get into college because I was a great student, not a great Latina student.
I got an A on the essay.
We also read an excerpt from the biography of Malcolm X in class that year. It was the part where he described conking his hair for the first time, the lye making him feel as if his head was on fire. I've always had natural hair, and when we discussed the piece in class, one of my black classmates explained why she relaxed her hair by saying, "If we didn't straighten our hair, it would look like Ailen's," as if having hair that looked like mine was the worst possible thing that could befall a teenage girl. I was embarrassed by her comment, but I didn't appreciate its irony in light of my essay until many years later.
I continued to believe that discrimination was a thing of the past and that any overt programs or measures designed to promote minority participation were furthering the same system civil rights leaders so courageously stood against. I was blind to the overwhelming evidence of white privilege that surrounded me.
Things have changed since high school. I have changed. I have read more, attended workshops and seminars, learned about the lingering effects of centuries of institutionalized preferential treatment of whites. Now I know that my classmate wasn't just being mean or vain when she talked about my hair; she was simply expressing what she'd been socialized to believe her entire life: That straight hair, like that of most white women, is more desirable.
And today, I believe that we all need to make conscious, overt efforts to advance the success of minorities because as a society, we are constantly making unconscious, covert efforts to hinder persons of color and preserve white privilege.
I recently had an experience that exemplifies this.
A few weeks ago, my husband jumped out of bed in the middle of the night. He'd heard a noise on our deck and went to our back door to investigate. He found a man there, trying to come into our house. I remained in our bedroom and called the police. "What does the man look like?" I asked my husband in order to describe him to the 911 operator. "He's a white man, wearing jeans and a black jacket," my husband answered.
The police came out to my house and talked to the man. They asked him for his ID and convinced him to get off our deck. One of the officers explained to us that he was very, very drunk. My husband and I looked through our window as the man and the police stood on the sidewalk and talked. We saw the man make a call on his cell phone and hand it to one of the officers. A few minutes later, three of the man's friends came to pick him up and the cops drove away. The man was so drunk that he didn't want to go home with his friends and ran down the street, his buddies chasing after him.
My husband and I were in shock. We are convinced that, had that man been a person of color, he would have been handcuffed and arrested, possibly even tased. We are convinced of this because it's what our personal experience with the police dictates. Because my husband was thoroughly questioned about his immigration status once after being pulled over for speeding and handing the officer a valid driver's license. Because my brother spent a night in jail when a cop deemed him suspicious for sitting in his parked car one afternoon, searched his pockets and found a fake ID.
I've been telling the story to everyone I know, touting it as an example of institutionalized racism. But there's a part of the story I've been hesitant to share with even my closest friends.
When my husband told me that the man standing at our back door was white, my initial reaction was surprise, closely followed by relief. It was an automatic and subconscious reaction, but a reaction nonetheless.
I had assumed he was a person of color and when I heard he wasn't, I assumed he was harmless. I too have been socialized to think that dangerous criminals can only be black or Latino. I judged him — just like the police.
I am convinced that we all do this on some level. Anyone who chooses to deny it is just as naïve as my high-school self.