Thursday, September 10, 2009

Some thoughts on race, ethnicity and what I am: The Epilogue

I realized why the whole race/ethnicity and "Am I really 'Latina'?" thing was bugging me so much.

Too often we talk about "race" when we mean "class." We say "African-American/black" and "Hispanic/Latino" when we mean "low-income," "first-generation college students," or "limited English proficiency/English language learners."

I am Latina, but I'm not low-income. I'm not first-generation college. I'm not LEP/ELL.

When we talk about "minorities" and the "minority experience," we're talking about growing up poor, with limited resources. Parents who never went to college, and either don't value education or don't know how to show they value education, encourage you and give you the tools you need to succeed. Who don't have the resources needed to make education a priority.

That's not me. That's what made me feel like a poser. I never had to overcome those obstacles, so I feel uncomfortable claiming "minority" status because I don't deserve the credit.

Both my parents went to college. They read to me (in two languages) since birth. We bought books ALL THE TIME. My parents instilled in me a love of books and reading. We never went without. I grew up with two parents at home; even after my parents divorced (when I was on high school) they were both present in our lives.

I never had a language gap/issue in school. (I had a hard time understanding the nasaly, thick Texas accent of one of my teachers when I very first arrived in the US, but I think I was over that by the second day.)

This is why the race- and sex-based affirmative action that granted me admittance into UT-Austin offended me so much: I did not need the help. I had had all the advantages one could ask for; race- and sex-based affirmative action sends the message that you are genetically inferior, because of your race or sex, and cannot compete on a level playing field. Regardless of your background, the mere fact that you are a Hispanic female means you are not as "good" as a white male (or a white female) and therefore deserve special treatment.

Which is why we need class-based affirmative action.

I'm not saying racism and sexism no longer exist, sadly they are still alive and well, but race- and sex-based affirmative action are not an effective way to fight that beast, and they are also not addressing the problems they were created to solve (at least in education).

We need class-based affirmative action. We need to recognize the need to level the playing field based on class, socio-economic status, not race. Unfortunately, a disproportionate amount of low-SES people are racial minorities, but when we focus on race we're focusing on the wrong thing and ignoring the root of the problem, which prevents us from ever solving (or aleviating) the problem.

We don't like talking about class. And the worst part is those who have the discussions, those who make the decisions, are the priviledged, the members of the high classes. This causes two problems: A) they don't want to admit they are the priviledged (and there's always someone who's better off than you, so how can you say you are priviledged, when they guy over there had MORE advantages than you???), and B) they don't understand the problems that afflict the not-priviledged. They don't get it because they haven't been there. They don't know what it means to not have. They don't know what they don't know about how the other half lives.

I'm at the Council for Opportunity in Education's National Conference, finding out how much I didn't know. And how to fix it, for me and for you.


  1. "When we talk about "minorities" and the "minority experience," we're talking about growing up poor, with limited resources."
    There's also the whole your-skin-is-a-different-color-than-mine thing. And your complexion is fair enough that you probably didn't experience that aspect of it either.

    "We need class-based affirmative action."
    I think a majority of the scholarships out there have a certain income cap, where if you make too much money you are not eligible. Of course, that applies only to education and not to job availability...

  2. Regarding skin color: practically all the Latinos I grew up with had skin the same color as mine - pale and "white." Hispanics have all shades of skin colors, from pale white to brown to black. I know skin color comes into play when we talk about racism, but when we talk about "Hispanic culture" skin color varies too much to base the "Hispanic experience" solely on that. (This is different for blacks, obviously, where skin color is a huge basis for discrimination, but since that is not applying to my personal experience I skipped over it.)

    I know "affirmative action" is the wrong term (especially since I don't even know if we use it; I thought Hopwood killed the last vestiges of it). I'll elaborate in a future post; the affirmative action we need is not money, it's much bigger than that. Thinking it's only about money, which is a common mistake, is part of that "not knowing what you don't know" problem. Most people don't know what needs to be done to level the playing field, starting early in education and continuing through college (so that, by the time the person graduates from college and looks for a job, the playing field has been leveled).

  3. I like this post a great deal. You articulate and (I believe) correctly identify the impact of a specific label like 'sexism' or 'racism' or others in dealing with an institutionalized system of oppressions that employ multiple forms of oppression in order to target specific groups.

    The staus quo seeks to divide and conquer. This is not to say (and I don't believe you were suggesting) that these more focused conversations are not needed or relevant. I take it as cause to constantly examine our goals, evaluate our audience, measure our effectiveness, see who or what we may be missing, look to broaden or narrow our focus in relation to that which we are challenging.

    When we exclude individuals or groups and their identities / experiences / rights, what is lost and what is gained? Which strategy helps us now? Which one helps us later?

    I like the way you think: clear-eyed.


  4. Karen7:17 AM

    I once had a conversation with someone who is considered a minority on the basis of his skin tone, and he was suggesting that if you have a job that doesn't pay enough, you need to get an education and get a better job. He comes from a background similar to yours, in that he had two educated parents, and access to and an importance placed on education. I don't think he could comprehend how far ahead of the game he already was just from having books in his house growing up.

    I think you've hit the nail on the head regarding privilege.

    You and Jeffrey should discuss class versus race sometime. I've not thought of class-based initiatives in quite this way before, but it makes more sense than skin-tone based.

  5. I TOTALLY AGREE. I do think Affirmative Action is still being used, and I also think it's inherently racist. What it's really trying to do is give better opportunities to those who didn't have them growing up... meaning those who were in lower SES households, etc. And it assumes that by being black/hispanic/female, that that was the case for you. Maybe income caps have been put in place since I went to college, but it seemed an awful lot of scholarships were based entirely on the minority aspect. We have one friend who is 1/4 Cuban (though is pale, "white") and grew up in a very loving, economically-stable, and incredibly intelligent household and he got a scholarship b/c of his ethnicity (he said he was the ONLY "white" guy in the entire room).

    Karen also hit the nail on the head-- so many times people who start out priviledged assume that their success is due to their hard work only, ignoring the HUGE amount of sheer luck that went into it-- the family they grew up in, the fact that no unfortunate accidents happened to them to limit their ability, the education they recieved, etc.

  6. Wow. Great post. I honestly don't feel qualified to comment I've been thinking a lot about "white privilege" lately. I'm trying to figure out what it means and how I've been affected by it. The honest answer is that it's probably so ingrained in my life that I can't even see it.

    This might be a great starting-point to some guest blogs...

  7. Really great post. Lots has already been said here so I won't repeat it, but I particularly agree with this: "We need class-based affirmative action."