By Chloe Irizarry-Nelson
Racial Justice Department Intern, YWCA Madison
As a multiracial girl growing up in a diverse and largely low-income neighborhood on Long Island, I learned about the concept of race at a young age. I first learned a part of my identity when my mother and grandmother told me that I was Puerto Rican. I had many classmates that also identified as Puerto Rican and I wanted desperately to fit in with my peers, as any child does. I was excited to tell them that I was one of them. However, I was painfully disappointed to learn that they did not believe me. One day, I told my grandmother how upset I was about what the other kids had said. She told me not to listen to them, pointing to the television where she had flipped to the novelas. “Look!” she said, “She has light skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes and she is Puerto Rican, too!” I appreciated that my grandmother had tried, but something inside of me told me that it didn’t matter what my family said. I continued to question my identity.
My grandparents were both first generation Puerto Rican-Americans, growing up within a community of immigrants in Brooklyn. They were raised speaking both Spanish and English, but they chose not to raise my mother in a bilingual household. I would occasionally hear my grandfather call my brother papi, but I mostly heard English from him because he placed a high value on assimilation, a value that I later learned would allow my family to survive in a culture that did not value our roots. My grandmother, though, took me to Spanish mass, and seemed disappointed when I chose to learn French instead of Spanish when I was in middle school.
When I think back, there were many things about Latin-American culture that I rejected. I felt uncomfortable in my grandparents’ primarily-Latino neighborhood and complained about the reggaeton blasting from cars on the street. And although the Puerto Rican Day Parade is a huge deal in my hometown, I’ve never been to one. Perhaps this was a response to the feeling that my heritage rejected me because of my light skin and inability to speak the language. So, in many ways, I subconsciously furthered our family’s lineage of assimilation into mainstream white U.S. culture. Yet there was always part of me that was neither able to relate completely to my White classmates nor to my Latino or Puerto Rican classmates.
It wasn’t until I started as an intern in the YWCA Madison Racial Justice Department that I was able to find the space that I needed to explore the complexity and fluidity of racial identity. After participating in several of the Racial Justice Workshops, I began to understand why I was feeling stuck between two worlds—one was a world of immense privilege while the other was a world of disadvantage and internalized oppression.
The workshops are designed for community members to delve into issues of race and to begin discussing race relations. One can imagine that this is a much-needed service in a state that was recently named the worst for black children (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2014). The workshops come in three levels: level 100 focuses on the complexity of our own racial identities and the interpersonal level of racism, level 200 emphasizes the ways in which racism reaches beyond the interpersonal into larger systems that affect access to wealth and education, and level 300 encourages participants to critically examine white privilege and how it informs and perpetuates systemic racism.
Through the early part of the workshops, I was able to see how systemic and intergenerational racism had impacted my family—particularly how my mother’s family was unable to accumulate home equity at a rate that was similar to their white counterparts. Because my grandparents’ neighborhood was affected by a mass exodus of white homeowners, the value of their home suffered. This left them with a limited amount of wealth and made it more difficult for them to pass any of that wealth on to my mother. But as we moved through the series, I was also pushed to identify the ways in which I have white privilege. There are many ways in which my skin privilege has allowed me to move through life much easier than someone with a darker complexion. For example, I know that people do not make assumptions about my competence based on my race—and that when my white husband and I eventually want to purchase a home, we will likely have no problem doing so. And I began to see that though I may experience similar frustrations as someone who is darker and also identifies as multiracial, that person will always be considered a person of color first, while I will always be able to pass as white.
There have been many times when I wished I didn’t have white skin, as in grade school when I felt that I couldn’t prove my Puerto Rican-ness, or in my adult life when it is sometimes assumed that I have only a white perspective on racial justice issues.
Throughout my time at the YWCA and as a participant of the Racial Justice Workshops, I have come to realize that my perspective as a mixed person adds value to our work in racial justice. The YWCA has taught me that I am in a position to use my skin privilege to benefit my friends and family who do not have it. So, I urge all of us—especially those of us who have skin privilege—to think how we can use our privilege to further the cause of racial justice.
Chloe is a second-year Graduate Student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Social Work. She is interested in continuing her work in social justice advocacy and policy upon graduation this May. In her spare time she enjoys running, biking, and spending time with friends and family.
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