Today’s post is from return contributor Veronica A. Perez (b. 1983). She is an artist and educator who works mostly in the mediums of sculpture and photography. Usually utilizing construction and kitschy materials in her pieces, Perez creates intense personal moments by means of hybridization, ideals of beauty, nostalgia, while fragility echoes sentiments of a lost self, and at the same time paralleling contemporary feminist tensions.
I was shopping at the local grocery store last week, in the aptly named “Hispanic” section. As I was looking at the Goya goodness, a man and woman came up behind me and the wife asked the husband if he maybe wanted some tacos for dinner. The husband curtly replied, “I don’t want none of that Spic Mexican shit!” and let out a hearty laugh. My jaw dropped as I mustered up a small and tiny “Excuse me” to which he angrily replied “You got somethin’ to say?”’ I at this point just walked away to the fading sounds of his laughter.
I bring up this story because it has a lot to do with being a white passing POC within the state of Maine. There is usually disbelief when I tell someone I am Latinx (Puerto Rican on my father’s’ side; additionally, Latinx is indeed a word, it is a gender-neutral alternative used to move beyond the gender binary and the more commonly used masculine form of the word). I am most definitely white-passing and I am also half Italian on my mother’s’ side. I was recently asked if I sometimes I use my Puerto Rican-ness to be more ethnic and othered, by a very ignorant white male.
Light-skinned privilege is exactly what it sounds like; it means POC with lighter complexions usually get a pass because they are not as dark as their peers. Colorism is a major driving force behind racism in America. Big Bill Broonzy’s 1947 song Black, Brown and White explains colorism perfectly:
“If you was white,
If you was brown,
But if you’s black, oh, brother,
Get back, get back, get back.”
Basically, what Broonzy is saying is “If you’re darker than a white tan girl, something’s not right.”
Now, I obviously pass for white. I have not faced the contemptuous discriminations or systemic oppressions that my darker brothers and sisters face everyday. I grew up in a lower-middle-class family that lived on an army base in New Jersey. My father, Miguel, was much darker than I and I would pick up on small cues when we would go out together; specifically, the way people would act around him and change their tones when talking to him. I clearly remember one time when we went to the florist to pick up flowers for my mother and the woman behind the counter, once realizing that this was the man she spoke to on the phone, said, “Oh, I didn’t realize you were Black, you sounded white on the phone.” My father always had this way of subtly disarming people, while at the same time putting them in their place. He smiled and kindly asked this woman, “Well, what have you done differently if I was white?”
However, I have had my share of bias; specifically speaking, while I was in grad school in Maine. I was making a lot of work related to feminism, my interpretation of feminism, Latinx feminism. And it wasn’t taken seriously. Well, let me stop there, I am not sure if it wasn’t taken seriously or if the type of work I do isn’t accepted here. Maine, artistically, is a very traditional place with traditional craft values (It is taking steps to right this; I am seeing more and more diversity. But it’s moving at a glacial pace). I work with very untraditional materials and kitschy ideas. The work is messy and loud. I was told more than once that I am “too emotional, too passionate” (like being passionate is a bad thing) within the discourse that I am working in.
I’m sure if I was white, or having a white conversation, others would have been able to glom onto my ideas and identify with the experiences I was having. When POC share their knowledge and experience within a room of white peers, the POC is interrupted, corrected, and explained to, instead of giving POC the space to speak their truth and lead. In these conversations, POC are “allowed in” and their work becomes a footnote within the privileged white discourse. The frame of reference always returns to white cultural norms. And since I am a white looking woman, who am I to be talking about Latinx experiences? What do I know about it? My work shifted to become more traditional sculptural forms, devoid of meaning and passion. They were just forms. The identity had been ripped away and all that was left was dust. Boring, white dust.
I’ve learned, living in this state, and with the recent sitting president, that bias and discrimination is real. I’ve always lived and grown up in very diverse areas along the eastern seaboard: New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia. And always knew that racism and biases were real. However, it was not until I moved here that I realized that it was still vibrantly, actively alive. Some Mainers believe that there isn’t a race problem, when the problem is that there is nobody to be racist to most of the time; there are mostly just white people. Portland and surrounding areas are the most diverse of the state, and even then not really so. And even when a light-skinned POC like myself attempts to speak upon the matter, I am shut down for not being ethnic enough because of my light skinned-ness. No matter though, I won’t stop.
Recognizing the privilege you have as a light-skinned person is imperative. Light-skinned POC need to recognize this privilege and use it to be an advocate for those whose voices people decide to drown out because of the color of their skin. Light-skinned POC have a responsibility to defend and use their light-skinned-ness to voice equality. Just like that jerk in the grocery store, he thought I was just another white woman living in Maine, but what he didn’t realize is I have a voice and I will continuously use it to fight, even though I didn’t use it in that moment at the grocery store. I still have this burning passion to be an advocate to others.
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