Recently I read an article on “white privilege” which is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as the “inherent advantages possessed by a white person on the basis of their race in a society characterized by racial inequality and injustice.” As I read the article, several memories darted through my mind like sparks.
My friend Dominga, whose family migrated from Texas to Michigan to pick crops, told me of “colored water.” Her parents told her that she could drink from that water and not the other, both were clear. She wondered why the water didn’t come out in different colors. We would just laugh. We were too young to understand that this was racism. (N.B. Blacks and other people of color were not allowed to drink from the same water fountains as whites.)
Another memory was when my mother was waiting for the doctor and she gave me money to buy ice cream at the pharmacy across the street. I was 8 years old and the pharmacist told me that he would sell me an ice cream cone – I am fair skinned – but not my sister Tomasa, who has an olive complexion. I told him that she was my sister so we would not buy it and we left. My sister did not know English and I told her in Spanish that there was no ice cream. When my mother asked me why we did not get ice cream, I told her that we did not want any. I shared this story for the first time in a multicultural class, the professor was Japanese and asked us for stories of where we had witnessed or experienced racism. I broke down crying. Even though I responded quickly to the pharmacist and protected my sister from racism by lying to her and my mother, I had felt a deep pain that was buried for many years.
My sister Tomasa married a Black man. She has shared many stories of experiencing discrimination in restaurants, stores, and hotels. My brother-in-law usually keeps quiet because saying something could make things worse. After listening to Blacks reflect on the protests in the U.S., I understand better how Black men are formed in their families and why my brother-in-law keeps silent. Speaking up or questioning may lead to trouble with the law, not getting a job, being ignored at restaurants.
I can’t change having white privilege because of the color of my skin. However, I can use this privilege to bring change to my environment. In 8th Grade, the principal of the school changed my name to “Janie”, because an English name would open more doors for me. It seemed futile to explain that my name was Juana so I gave in. In high school, at the age of 17, using my birth certificate, I finally had my name changed in my school records to Juana.
As a Catholic school educator, I teach social justice and have a Black Madonna icon in my classroom. The two Blacks in my predominantly Hispanic classes have shared their stories. At one school, I started a “curly” club when one student was secretly being harassed by students saying she must be Black because she had hair like the Blacks. I raise awareness that within the Hispanic culture, there is prejudice. Fair skinned children are often praised more than olive complexion children. Many in my family were uncomfortable with my sister marrying a Black man, who is also Native American.
However, it is not enough for me to influence my surroundings. The next step is to bring up to the faculty and staff the topic of racism and how we can more effectively cover it in our social justice curriculum. As educators, we have the capacity to influence the formation of students and the community so that racial inequality becomes less of a reality and we truly become sisters and brothers in Christ.
Sr. Juana Villescas, Texas