Being Brown While Looking White

by Cecily Rodriguez

It was Senior Week in high school and someone wrote “Taco” on my car window in shoe polish. It was a friend who had no malicious intent and I thought it was funny. Plus, I love tacos because, who doesn’t?

After school I drove home, parked in the driveway, and ran in to change before heading to a friend’s. Five minutes later I came out and my window had been wiped clean. I didn’t think much of it and went on my way.

26 years later, I still remember my blue Corolla with shoe polish smears on the back windshield.

Most of my life I’ve thought of myself as white. I look white, sound white, grew up in the white suburbs, attended a mostly white private school and college, married a white man and…whitewash, rinse, repeat…we bought a house in a white suburb and sent our daughter to a very white public school (at least for a few years).

Because my skin lacks the pigment of my father’s DNA, I’ve been afforded the opportunity to hear firsthand what’s said when people think everyone in the group is white. The jokes, assumptions, negative comments. All of it.

Sometimes I’ve spoken up and told people my last name is Rodriguez (enter awkward back pedaling of racist joke) and sometimes I haven’t. I’m embarrassed to admit that but it’s true.

When I didn’t it was for all sorts of reasons but the main one was, I didn’t think the jokes were about me. They were about other people – my Dad, my cousins, my grandparents. While I still found them offensive, I found them offensive on behalf of someone else.

When I did speak up it was to defend other people. No, Mexicans are not stealing your job Brenda. Are you REALLY going to pick lettuce for 14 hours a day in the blistering sun with no breaks? Mmmm-kay. Sit down. I defended other people because I didn’t need to defend myself. Those comments weren’t about me. I’m white.

But on June 16, 2015, my perspective shifted…

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Yes, he was talking about my dad and my cousins and my grandparents AND for the first time, me. I felt the sucker punch of racism to my own gut. I cried. Like, ugly cried, cried.

It’s strange to realize you wear a cloak of white privilege over your foundation of brown experience. Because my skin is white, I’ve been able to move through the world differently. My cousins who have brown skin or simply look more Hispanic have had vastly different lives than me. I’ve been oblivious to this because I’ve lived a white life. I know, so ignorant.

I could have easily kept all this to myself, and, trust me, I’m going to have a little anxiety when this gets posted (a lot. I’m going to have a lot). I’m ashamed of having been so oblivious and frankly, self-centered. So why put all this in writing?

Because, my girl @brenebrown has it right, “Shame needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgment”. I wouldn’t call all this a secret but I’ve definitely been silent and lawd knows I’ve judged myself for it. If you’re judging me, don’t bother. I’ve got it covered.

I understand being brown while looking white and for me that means I have a responsibility to use my white skin to make headway for those who don’t. No more silence. No more judgment. Just action.

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