On race and privilege

ImageI remember sitting in that classroom some three years ago now, in tears. I was embarrassed to be having such an irrational reaction to that moment, but as I sat there listening to this small-framed, soft-spoken woman spell out everything I had not been able to express or even understand about my life in the Netherlands until that point, I couldn’t help but let the tears stream down my cheeks. This class was called “Experiencing Differences”, and was part of a minor in Gender, Sexuality and Politics that I did at the University of Amsterdam in my undergrad. The whole minor was great, but this class… This class was about diversity. Race, ethnicity, sexuality, social class, prejudice, exclusion, pain, privilege, all wrapped into one delicious box of assorted intellectual chocolate truffles of sorts which I got to savor week after week. And every week again my mind would be blown.

Even feminist values I had carried with me were put into question – I was taught, for instance, to question sex work, for the first time ever, from a labor rights perspective that acknowledged sex worker agency over their bodies and their work. I cannot stress enough how important this class was to my development as a human being and my academic interest forever more. The literature we were given on racism in the Netherlands touched me like no other. I always say the social sciences are somewhat personal to me. Things I personally identify with resonate more, are absorbed better and trigger the type of interest and curiosity that make for my best research. So when I finally read something that put into words the unsettling non-belonging I have experienced in my life as an immigrant in the Netherlands, I was moved.

I had been picturing what the class discussion would look like, preparing arguments in my head. Some of our discussions became quite heated as a small group of students often refused to acknowledge that there was anything to be upset about in terms of ethnic relations in the Netherlands. I often wondered how in the world they had ended up in that class. In any case, the author of the chapters assigned to that week cancelled the class. I was quite disappointed, but she offered the opportunity to meet her in a seminar-style meeting the following day. I had another class at around that time but just I had to see her. I’ve seldom felt this drawn to an individual author. She got me and my struggle. I’d never felt that so strongly from a professor at my home university before. Only a handful of people made it to the seminar, so we had her full attention. As I listened to this professor’s strong opinions and delicate voice, I felt something I had never felt before: a call for action. I asked her, my voice trembling, “What can we do about this?” I needed to know how you form alliances between ethnicities – including the many educated, amazing, white Dutch people I’ve met in my life – and solve this problem.

She started by asking where I was from. The first tear rolled down my cheek. “Even she is questioning where I’m from”, I thought. In her defense the class was taught in English and I don’t have the easiest-to-place accent in the world. I told her I was born and raised in Brazil and moved to the Netherlands as a child. She looked into my eyes and said: “It must have been very hard for you. As someone who participates in constructions of whiteness in Brazil, to move to a place where you will never be white.” What she said to me then, so elegantly, so simply: she really got me. I wasn’t born to prejudice. I was born to privilege, to “whiteness”, whatever that may be. Not because of the color of my skin alone, but because my family is educated and middle-class and in Brazil that is privilege. And privilege is whiteness. I had to learn to be the other. And it was hard and unsettling. It was painful and yet hard to place. Because until that moment, I had not realized that I had been on both sides of that coin. Not that being unrightfully privileged due to class and some idea of whiteness isn’t unsettling – more on this topic in a moment – but being “white” means not having to think about privilege until your face is rubbed in it. And I had forgotten that I once was privileged in that way. If I felt any deep-rooted outrage about my condition before I understood it, it was because I had a hard time accepting this unsettling non-privilege.

As I write this, I am sitting my house in central Brooklyn, in New York. A predominantly Afro-Caribbean and African American part of the borough, where once again the coin has flipped. I figured coming to America, as a Brazilian-born woman, I would fall under the broad albeit arguably meaningless category of “Latina”. Instead, living in Crown Heights, I am the “white, privileged, middle class, and highly-educated yuppie gentrifier” who came to break up the neighborhood. Let me explain. I am taking a class on immigrant participation in city politics in New York and it seemed appropriate for me to research Afro-Caribbeans in Crown Heights, seeing as I was living among this population and my primary group of interest –undocumented immigrants – doesn’t vote. I heard many variations of the argument that “you (the imagined “me” and “others like me”) are moving into our communities and displacing folks who have lived here their whole likes and you lead individualistic lives and you’re only buying up brownstones in Crown Heights because you can’t afford one in Park Slope.” While that may be true for some of the “white” population living in Crown Heights, I cannot so much as afford to buy a bicycle at the moment, never mind a building. Hearing a graduate student in social sciences being called a yuppie is borderline comical. But the point is that these interviews reveal, aside from the clear racial tensions that still exist in the neighborhood, that even though every one of my respondents knew I was from Brazil, I might be “white” in America.

The research I am doing for my thesis was also somewhat hindered by my perceived “whiteness”. The first event I went to organized by one of the groups I am researching, a young man of color free-style rapping about “Stop and Frisk” turned to me and said: “I mean no disrespect, but we both know if I was walking behind you, you would hold your purse tight”. Unfair as that was, following this first uneasy attack, I experienced many other instances where I was boxed in as “white” and the latter came with a mountain of assumptions about me. After a particularly tense interview last week with an Afro-Caribbean community leader I spoke to my boyfriend about what I had been experiencing. I told him I always looked at race from an intersectional perspective whereby race + class + gender = privilege or not. I never before had felt so clearly that above all else, the color of my skin could be translated into privilege. The people I was interviewing are middle class, educated, professional people. They could afford to buy a brownstone in Brooklyn. I couldn’t afford to buy lunch. My boyfriend, I should explain, is South African, of European descent. He tried, as best as he could, to not undermine what I was feeling. But it still sounded that way when the words came out of his mouth. He said: “Really? Okay, because growing up in South Africa, regardless of anything else, I always knew that my skin color meant I had some undeserved privilege”.

Now, the thing is that he had hit the nail right on the head. When it comes down to it, America has its own history of apartheid. And the civil rights movement was just yesterday. And just like I had to learn to be the “other”, and to lose my “whiteness” in the Netherlands, in America I have to learn to be “white” and privileged by definition. It’s been anything but easy. Because you don’t just unlearn your racial identity and mine had become whatever I made of it that couldn’t possibly ever be white – Latina, Brazilian, person of the Global South minus Australia? It took me twelve years to get to that classroom and have an illuminating discussion about my place in the racial spectrum of the society I had lived in for all those years. There’s simply no chance that the same kind of enlightenment will come after just four weirdly racially charged months in New York City. I suppose what I can conclude, from anecdotal evidence that is empiric nonetheless, is that “whiteness” is a social construct that clearly doesn’t navigate well from one society to the next.

On a rational level, I can analyze and contextualize these experiences and even come to understand them. Having race imposed upon you is probably part of the human condition. But when it comes to a category as problematic and socially constructed as race, those of us who navigate between societies will probably always, to some degree, feel a little lost in translation.

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