There is a narrative emerging around how to have a conversation about race, particularly if we are part of the privileged white majority. If we are compelled to care about racial issues, we must first educate ourselves and learn how to approach and engage in conversations about some very sensitive topics: What is appropriate to say and acknowledge about racial differences, and what is not? Should we express our observations at all, or should we just listen? And, how do we express sincere empathy and compassion, without making it personal and about ourselves?
If we are white it does not necessarily mean we are incapable of understanding what systemic oppression is or means to a minority group, or what barriers our BIPOC brothers and sisters have faced throughout their lives. It does not mean we are not outraged by racial violence or injustices and impassioned to make change happen. It just means that no matter how relatable our own experiences may feel, we, as individuals of the white majority, are not authorities on these issues, and we should not feel entitled to act like we are.
I am reminded of this every time the topic of race is raised in conversations with my friends, my family, and my husband — all mostly white and well-intended individuals, who are deeply disturbed and saddened by recent events and acts of violence. I also cannot help but take these conversations personally — this should not still be happening in our country. We should be past this. We should be better than this.
I am white. My husband is biracial; his mother is white; his father is Mexican with Spanish ancestry. If my husband had grown up in Mexico and not the United States, he would have likely been considered white. But here in the United States, he is considered mixed-race.
When we first met, seven years ago, my husband expressed his feelings about identifying himself as a person of color. Sometimes he checked the box, sometimes he did not. He was aware that part of his ancestry was proof of colonialism, riddled with the atrocities the Spaniards and White Europeans inflicted on indigenous populations, while the other part of his European heritage was indoctrinated with the capitalistic American mindset and culture. When it came to matters of identity, there was not a clear choice of which ethnicity he wanted to take pride in; neither seemed to fit in with his values.
My husband grew up and lived most of his life on the Midcoast of Maine and his ambiguous features helped him to “blend in” with the majority white community in which he was raised. On occasion, he did have to deal with his share of racially charged insults and attitudes, but mostly his experiences were not unlike his white peers. However, sometimes he secretly longed to know what his life would have been like had he instead grown up in California, where his father lived, and had exposure to Latino culture through being part of a Latino community. He wondered what path his life would have taken had he been given a different experience and an opportunity to connect with that side of his familial bloodline.
As a married couple, we chose to reside in an even “whiter” place, Central Vermont. The small town we now live in, in many ways, is reminiscent of the town in which my husband grew up; a place that invokes mostly fond memories and great stories.
When we first arrived in Vermont, the community was very welcoming and only a handful of individuals made subtle references to my husband’s darker complexion.
“Is he Italian?” they asked.
“No, he is half Latino.”
They were often surprised and a little embarrassed knowing they had inadvertently brought up the topic of race, their Yankee guilt making its own subtle appearance.
To lighten the mood, I would throw in the joke, “And you wouldn’t even know it with that accent of his.”
To which they would respond, “I didn’t notice a Spanish accent.”
And, I would say, “Oh no, he doesn’t speak Spanish. My Spanish is better than his. I was talking about his Maine accent.”
It was not until my husband began working at a majority white boarding school, did the conversation really change for us at home. It was there, for the first time in his life, I saw my husband contemplate his identity in a new way, exhibiting a newfound pride and confidence in who he was and where he came from.
As one of three faculty of color, he was invited to be a part of a POC group that supports incoming students who come from relatively diverse communities. Adjusting to the rural landscape and lifestyle is for many of the students who attend the semester program, quite the culture shock, as many of them come from densely populated metropolitan and urban areas. But when you are a student of color, or a faculty member of color, in a majority white school in the middle of nowhere, there is a different kind of transition that happens. For some, it is a matter of facing their fear of being a high-achieving minority among a highly-competitive white population, while for others it is a matter of not having the comfort and support of a familiar community close by.
The more my husband participated in activities with this collective of students and faculty, the more he reflected on and opened up about how he always felt the need to “blend in”, and that it was shame and fear that kept him from feeling connected to his Mexican heritage and culture; that it was shame and fear that kept him from claiming that part of his identity as his own.
While it deeply saddened me to learn my husband lived with these feelings for so long, because the communities he was part of lacked the knowledge or support systems he needed, it gives me great hope now knowing that he is able to take these experiences he had and turn them into productive dialogue with others, who may also be feeling the pressure to assimilate into an [educational] environment curated and represented by a majority white and privileged population. My only critique of how “progressive” institutions operate is that the onus is still continually placed on people like my husband to educate their fellow colleagues and peers about what it means to them to be different.
In an ideal world, there would be equitable representation in our melting pot and a reverence for our differences. And, yes, we are a long way from where we should be, at this point in history, but every day I am seeing examples of people making an effort to have the tough conversations that need to be had, while others are finally hearing and acknowledging the voices that have gone for so long unheard. I want to believe our shared goal is true progress and change. I want to believe it will happen in our lifetime.
The conversation shifted again when we learned that we were going to become parents. It was when we were completing the paperwork for genetic testing that we were struck by the significant role we could play in teaching our child about identity. Our child will most likely identify as white and will not know the inner conflict their father has known his whole life, but we will be able to provide our child with an understanding of why such conflicts exist in the first place. Our child will likely not know what it is like to be bullied because their skin tone is a few shades darker, yet we will want them to know where their ancestors came from and will teach them what we can about their Polish-French-Dutch-Native American-Mexican-Spanish-Irish heritage. But above all else, the most important thing for us is that our child is encouraged, no matter how they choose to identify themselves, to be a person of integrity, kindness, and compassion, treating all the way they wish and deserve to be treated themselves. Every parent should be able to give their child a safe place in the world to be who they are, and that, I believe is something we can all agree on.