My NEA Story
It’s been almost a month since my trip to Denver to attend the National Education Association Representative Assembly, and I still haven’t unpacked. It’s time.
Truth be told, I’ve been unpacking for weeks. Quietly. Thoughtfully. Not the kind of unpacking that you might expect. I’m not talking about the red duffle bag stuffed with wrinkled, unused union shirts and forgotten mementos from my trip. That bag still sits in the corner. I’ve been unpacking something else, something much more serious.
I’ve been unpacking my soul.
They say, sometimes, it takes a traumatic experience to ignite the passion to do some soul searching. Sometimes, it takes a loss in the family, a lost job, or a lost love.
For me, it took a tweet. Yes, a tweet.
Let me explain. To do that, I must start at the beginning. My beginning.
I am a Florida native, born and raised. My mother’s family comes from the banks of North Florida’s Suwanee River. Needless to say, they are country folk – grit eating, sugar cane growing, country folk.
My father, on the other hand, was born on the island of Puerto Rico . His mother, whom I fondly called ‘mi abuelita’ , was born on Vieques, a smaller island off the tip of Puerto Rico. My father’s family were also country folk, harvesting pineapples on their Island, and chasing wild chickens at dinner time.
And, yet, while both families lived off their land in a similar manner, my two families are very different. The American culture of my mother and my Puerto Rican heritage are certainly worlds apart. The most recognizable difference? My mother’s family has the privilege of being white. Yes, white. My father’s family doesn’t enjoy that privilege. They are what the current generation calls ‘people of color’. Previous generations haven’t been so kind.
Their two worlds collide within me. Hence, my need to unpack.
So, where to start? Even as I go back to proofread, and I reread the opening of this blog, I notice I used the phrase: ‘my Puerto Rican heritage’ as opposed to ‘the American culture’. I realize that my instinctual use of ‘my Puerto Rican’ means something. It is not that I don’t consider ‘America’ mine. On the contrary, I ooze American. I am Miami, Florida, born and raised. I never moved much further north. I’m Southern American, to boot. I say ya’all, I hold up the line at the CVS chatting with the checkout gal, and I don’t use blinkers. Ever. Deal with it.
See, my bravado, there. I’m American and proud. I don’t have to call it ‘my American’ because I know I am. Everyone knows I am. It’s written all over my face.
My white face.
My privileged, white, cocky ‘You know I’m American, girl’ face.
I’m not proud of that face.
My Latina face isn’t quite as cocky. My Latina face is proud. Yes, she is. That is why I use the possessive, ‘my Puerto Rican’. I’m proud of my Latina culture. I honor my Latina heritage. I know the tragedies of my boricuan family. I’ve heard of and seen the prejudice, openly and systematically, that they have faced over the years. I still see it each day. I’ve faced some of my own. Maybe it is the condescending attitude of people when an accent is detected or my real name is discovered. Or, maybe, it is the comments when they don’t yet realize I am Latina, the outright racist comments made in my presence. Or maybe it is the inequities that I see in our public schools, the inequities that I need to spend more time focusing on.
Maybe it is all of this that makes me an angry, defensive, possessive boricua. I don’t know. I just know I’m proud. I am boricua. I know I don’t say that with the same cocky, American flavor. I say it with a chip on my shoulder. A burden.
But, now, since that tweet, I have started to think. I’m not really the one carrying the burden. I’d like to think I am, to feel bonded with my culture, but I’m privileged. I’m lucky. I do not live the burden like they do. Most of the Latina women in my world, those whom I adore at my job and seek daily for friendship and comfort, are not teachers like me. They are also not white skinned like me. They are support staff: Custodians. Cafeteria workers, and Bus Drivers. They are underpaid, with no insurance benefits for most. They work much harder and much longer than I do for much less money. They do not settle for these jobs, they are burdened with these jobs. Systematically over time, they have suffered injustices and been denied opportunities. They have been denied a voice. They carry the burden of being boricua, Latina, Hispanic, whatever you choose to call it. They are people of color living in an America where that fact is a disadvantage.
I am ashamed it took a tweet for me to come to this realization. I’m ashamed that over the years, I have become so comfortable in my world, in my skin, in my whiteness, that I forgot the burden of others. I forgot the teachings of mi abuelita. I forgot the cruelties she faced, unable to hide behind her skin. I forgot that she did not have the privilege of ever being able to be anything other than what she was. Unlike me, she could not change her style or change her haircolor to associate with a different race. She could not speak southern and hide in a different world, like I do. No. She carried the burden while I got the privilege. I’m ashamed that I never realized this before. I’m ashamed that I didn’t acknowledge it before she passed.
I realize it now, though. After a harsh tweet and a month of soul searching, I have finally come to an obvious conclusion.
I’m a hot mess.
I’m a privileged, white, hot mess … with the heart of a boricua.
Let me try to explain with an example. I truly adore my Latina friends at work. With both my father and mi abuelita passed, they often remind me of home. They are my strength. So strong always, they are my pillars of strength, mi corazon. But, until the tweet, the tweet that sent me reeling deep into a month of soul searching, until that tweet, I did not realize this one thing. Each time I sought out one of my Latina friends, each time I sought their advice and offered my own, each time our world’s comingled as I raised my children with theirs, each time we shared births, deaths, weddings together, each time … I failed to realize one thing.
Yea. White. Britney Spears white. Blue eyes and all. White.
See. That’s the privilege. I’m white. I got the proverbial golden ticket at birth. Others in my family and culture did not. I’d like to think I never knew my skin color gave me a privilege, but I deep down, I knew.
I knew there were times when people assumed I was white and gave me preferential treatment. I knew I escaped much of the prejudice and blatant racism that others in my Latina race suffer. I knew the systematic injustices built into the system did not shape my world. I am privileged. In the world that we live in, I’m lucky to be white.
I realize that fact now, thanks to that tweet. I’ve spent the month since that tweet unpacking my ‘invisible backpack of privileges’. I’ve spent the month grappling with my confused, suppressed identity. I’ve spent it crying, questioning, running away, and running back. I’ve spent it examining myself, reading research, and sharing the perspectives of many others. I don’t have all the answers, nor do I ever expect to have all the answers, but I can tell you, until the tweet, I was happy not to even ask the questions.
Now, I’m asking plenty of questions but I have few answers. That’s hard for me. That’s the privilege in me, always wanting to be the one with the right answers. I’ve had to learn lately, since that tweet, to shut up and listen. I’ve had to learn that just because I can speak, doesn’t always mean I should. I learned, as mi abuelita always warned, ‘if you throw the chit in the fan, you are going to get the chit all over your face’.
She was right. I threw my privilege into the fan a few weeks ago. I got upset about a tweet and I reported it. I pulled my privilege card. I felt entitled to fairness. I demanded fairness, without the humility of realizing life is not always fair. I demanded fairness without even considering that many don’t always have the privilege of expecting fairness.
I threw the chit at the fan. And, as my grandmother warned, I ended up with it all over my face.
My apologies to Melinda Anderson. You were right, MDA, for checking my privilege at the door. My apologies to Sabrina Stevens. You were right to question my tone, to school me on the ignorance of me staying colorblind in a time when skin color determines so much. You are both right. To refuse to see skin color, to refuse to recognize the disadvantages of some or the privileges of others, is insulting to many. I know that is true. I know how it feels to feel invisible, unheard. I should have known better. We all should.
So, I’ll finish this reflection and apology by shutting up and sharing a couple of the resources I used to study up on this topic of privilege. I urge all to read and do some soul searching.
#White Privilege and Unpacking the Invisible Backpack.