With everything going on in the world and racial tensions at an all time high you probably hear the term “white privilege” quite often. If you are white you might even feel guilty about it or even embarrassed. Even though I am part Latina I personally identify as white because that is my skin color and that is how society sees me. Being born white means you are automatically born with white privilege and I’m not even talking about money or opportunity. For me, this privilege means that society just looks at you as a person, as a human being with a life that is of value, rather than a color. I personally was never aware of my own white privilege until I became a teenager thanks to my maternal grandmother.
My grandma is not white. She came from Panama as a child in the 1940’s. She was also had darker skin which was not an easy thing during the 1940’s. On the contrary her mother (my great-grandmother) was very fair with black hair. If she didn’t speak and you couldn’t hear her heavy Spanish accent she could “pass” for an American. Back then they used to take the bus everywhere and due to segregation my grandmother had to sit at the back of the bus.
Sometimes the bus driver would even try to separate my grandma from her own mother. She could sit with the whites while my grandma had to sit in the back. Like any good mother, my great-grandmother always sat with her daughter in the back. Of course the white people would then stare and whisper. Some of the kids would pull my grandmas hair or call her the N word, or “SPIC.” This was not the America they had envisioned and was far from the land of the free. Unfortunately they also had no voice. They could not speak up for fear of retaliation.
They felt the only way to fight would be to submit and to assimilate into American culture. My grandmother married a white man. She did not teach her children Spanish and most of the culture became lost due to fear and shame of who they were. Spanish was only spoken at home in secret and never with the kids. Years later my grandmother told me that was the worst decision she ever made because she felt like her culture died with her kids.
“If you need to ask for the definition of ‘white privilege’, you already have it.”
Fast forward to my own childhood years. I loved having a diverse family with so many colors. Every summer my cousins would come to visit my grandmothers house in Pennsylvania. To this day I adore my cousins with all my heart but there was a difference between us. My cousins are half black. Growing up I remember my grandmother would constantly tell them how beautiful they were. My grandmother would always compliment their curly hair and their beautiful skin tone. She would always say “Girls, we are women of color and we are beautiful.” She obviously never said those things to me so I kind of felt a little left out. When I was going into high school I asked her flat out if she loved my cousins more than me. I knew she loved us all the same but I think I just wanted some kind of validation.
My grandma told me that she loved all of her granddaughters equally. However, our lives and paths we face are going to be very different. She told me that society would never remind me of my skin color the way it would remind them. People in the world are never going to comment things about my hair or my skin or my features. They will never make me feel bad whereas a black woman will face those things inevitably at some point. She told me that as their grandmother she wanted to always remind them of their beauty inside and out. She wanted them to never doubt themselves and to know they could do anything they wanted in life. Grandma wanted to let them know that their skin color makes them unique and beautiful but does not define them.
My grandmother was no stranger to racism. She made me aware of own privilege for the first time in my life. She also explained how white privilege goes deeper than physical aggression and comments. It’s about the freedom to live your life in peace. As a white person you are generally free to walk down the street without fear of harassment. As a black person, walking down that same street people may assume you are doing something illegal or may have a fear of your very presence. Can you imagine walking down the street and people just being afraid of you? If you can’t imagine this then you have white privilege.
Even my husband who is 100% Puerto Rican looks white. His skin is white. He does not look like someone you would classify as Latinx. Therefore he has white privilege. Both of our children are also very fair with light skin, light eyes and light hair. They have white privilege too. My kids have told me on several occasions that they are Puerto Rican so they are not white. I’ve had to remind them and be very transparent though. Society sees you as as “white” or “not-white,” so even though you have Latin roots you still have privilege. These are things we HAVE to educate our children on especially so that they will understand that their experiences can be completely different than their black friends. When they recognize something they can use their voices to speak up and be allies against racism instead of denying that privilege exists.
White people need to recognize that white privilege is not an attack or accusation on them as a person. It’s a statement of truth. Once you recognize that you have it it should be your responsibility to try to change it. I’m glad that my grandmother made me recognize this as a young girl because it made a lifelong impact on me. We can all make small changes in our lives to stop the racial divide by speaking up, donating, changing our own behaviors. As a nation we have a long road ahead but it starts within each one of us and we can be the change. Start within yourself and your own children at home and if you need a little help check out some of the resources below!
Resources for Talking to kids about White Privilege