If you ever want to give yourself sleepless nights, metaphorical aneurysms, and a couple of dozen new gray hairs, just try writing an article you probably have no business writing. Sounds fun, right? Let’s dive in.
The story begins three weeks ago at my local climbing gym in Boulder, Colorado, when I learned that fellow climbers had been making racist remarks to the South Korean coffee shop owners next door. The climbing gym is notorious for its grueling parking situation. Still, all members know not to occupy the spots at any businesses adjacent to the gym’s facility — such as the coffee shop — or they will get their cars towed.
Despite this knowledge (and glaring signs that read: Parking Prohibited), some people ignored the rules, got towed, and amid their anger, said some awful things to the owners’ faces.
One of the owners, Kim, relayed a few of the messages: “Go back to your country,” “Learn to speak English,” and “%$&# you.” Kim tried to explain to the angry individuals that it’s not even her coffee shop that enforces the parking prohibitions — it’s the landowner — but none of the climbers cared to hear.
Incredulous at what Kim told me, I set out to learn more about racism in my community. Disclosure: I am a white girl who grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut; as far as the white privilege lottery goes, I pretty much won…hence the “no business writing this,” sentiment.
However, despite my privilege (which I have come to learn a lot more about), friends of color encouraged me to write this piece. I recognize that the following opinions do not represent everyone’s, and I know I’m not going to end racism with a 1,200-word article.
That said, the past three weeks have opened my eyes to numerous accounts that people of color have experienced, and how my inaction has made me an accomplice — or downright guilty — of the discriminatory environments people of color have been living in.
If you’d also like to learn with me (or correct me, where perhaps I’ve said the wrong thing), I’ve consolidated my lessons below. Each lesson is followed by a quote and anecdote, featuring someone I interviewed for this story.
The first person I spoke with was Alyssa Gonzalez.
Lesson Number 1: Microaggressions Aren’t What I Thought They Were
“My mom is Thai and Irish, and my dad was born in New Jersey but is Chilean and Uruguayan. So I’m mixed. Mostly Hispanic with a little bit of Asian and Irish. I’m tan with green eyes and brown hair. It’s rare to go a day without someone making a comment about how I look.”
Alyssa went on to highlight the endless questions she receives on a daily basis in Boulder, (which, for context, is 87% white):
“Omg, you’re so exotic, what are you?”
“Are you Hawaiian? Are you Egyptian? Half-black? Middle eastern? South American?”
“Where are you ‘really’ from?”
If you’re wondering what that barrage of questioning must feel like, here’s the inside of Alyssa’s head, via email:
“I look in the mirror every morning and can see my brown skin. I know it’s there. But I am not thinking about it all day long. Everyone around me wakes up and sees their white skin and I doubt they think about that all day. For some reason, everyone cares about my skin and ethnicity so much that they have to tell me about it.
They make it so obvious that I’m not white. Every time people ask me what I am, I feel more ostracized. It’s embarrassing. It’s hurtful. It’s made me feel so hateful of the skin I’m in at times. I have never taken it as a compliment. I don’t see how it could be.”
Previously, I’d known of “racial microaggressions,” but translated the term literally — assuming they were small yet aggressive racist jabs — which I surely had never made. What I learned, however, is that microaggressions vary from subtle and overt manifestations of bias, either conscious or unconscious. I learned that these aggressions accumulate over time and can result in higher levels of stress and poor mental health.
As I read Alyssa’s email, my mind reeled back to the times I met her. Did I say that? Omigod, I might have said that. Was I that person? Crap, I am that person. The truth is, microaggressions can be intended as a compliment, but come across as hurtful, exhausting, and demeaning. I have a lot to work on.
The second person I spoke with was Joe Valadez Fraire.
Lesson #2: Connection is Everything
Joe is a first-born Mexican-American. We were in the kitchen of our co-working space when I asked,
“Joe? Can we talk about white privilege?”
He looked at me like I’d pulled the pin out of a grenade. I told him about the article I was (trying) to write, and he smiled a little. For the next hour or so, we had a conversation in which I asked him questions, and he told me his experiences.
During our exchange, two remarkable things happened. First, over ten people (all white) joined in to listen. Mind you, lunch breaks at this co-working space are usually quite disjointed and random. To look up and see a captive crowd of 10+ told me that this conversation and connection needs to happen more often. People in my immediate area, like me, want to be better.
“Can you give me an example of white privilege?” I asked Joe.
“Yeah, easy,” he said, “White privilege is both of us walking into a convenience store. You walk around freely but I get followed by the attendant because he thinks I’m gonna steal something based on my brown skin.”
Sadness washed over me at that moment, and the second remarkable thing happened.
The thought of Joe stealing something is so outrageous, so unfair, and so unfounded. I had read about white privilege before — but I had never felt it before. The visual of Joe and I walking into the same store together, with him getting profiled and me getting freedom, spoke straight to my bones.
In one hour-long conversation, Joe gave me what words on paper never had: understanding to my white privilege and a glimpse at how communication rewires, rewrites and reframes misunderstandings.
The third person in my journey was Daleena “Dee” Scott.
Lesson #3: Checking Me, My Peers, and My Privilege
Dee is a good friend of mine who looked a little less surprised than Joe when I asked her if we could talk about white privilege. Dee’s ethnicity is Black-Mexican. (Before sitting down to write this, I asked, “how do you identify?” and she said, “a badass b*tch,” which is the truth.)
Dee’s mom struggled with drug addiction, and her dad left the picture when Dee was two. Under the advice and guidance of her uncle, Dee enlisted in the army at 17.
“I had to get out of my town, and I didn’t have any other options,” Dee explained.
Having grown up in Greenwich, Connecticut, (I know, I know), the only decision most kids in my town had to make was which hedgefund they were most excited about. During our white privilege discussion, Dee said,
“It’s not that white people don’t struggle — it’s just that they often have parents to bail them out.”
Oof. I am a perfect example of this.
I grew up in a broken but financially stable home. (The US has a longstanding history of facilitating wealth for white Americans, and according to the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finance, the typical black family has 10 cents for every dollar held by the average white family.)
Despite strife under my family’s roof, I went to college and had my education paid for completely. Dee, however, did two tours in Iraq for her college diploma.
When I asked her what I could do to be part of the solution, she said,
“The more self-aware you are, the more you can educate yourself and those in your circle.”
I suppose that’s what this article is all about. I am craving more self-awareness; I do not want to be part of the problem anymore.
Lesson #4: This Sh*t’s Embarrassing
It’s been a somewhat shameful process thus far. It sucks to admit that I’ve been ignorant of such glaringly obvious inequalities within a five-mile radius of where I live. It’s terrible to realize how blind I was to my white privilege. Honestly, I remember learning about slavery in school, thinking to myself, “Wow, racism, glad that’s over.”
I didn’t know that my education was being white-washed from head-to-toe. Never once did a teacher tell me, “By the way, xenophobia is still real, racism is still alive, and discrimination is everywhere.”
It wasn’t until six years ago with the inception of the Black Lives Matter movement that I started becoming privy to the fact that racism is not at all eradicated, and it wasn’t until three weeks ago that I started digging into the truth. Joe, Alyssa, and Dee are glimpses into the racism I uncovered.
I spoke with Vinay Shah, who was riding his bike down a quiet Colorado street in broad daylight when he had a cop stare him down with a hand on his gun. I spoke with Lindsay Macdonald, who told me that she never felt ostracized for her Asian ethnicity until she moved to Colorado. I talked to Angele Sjong, who adopted two boys from Ethiopia and admitted that her white privilege extends to them here, in Boulder County, but she knows it may not once they’re on their own.
So, all-in-all, obviously, I have a lot to unpack. As I listened to the recordings of my interviews I thought to myself, “Yikes, I sound like an idiot.” But, I’m willing to sound uneducated in the process of learning, understanding, and incorporating betterment.
I know that neutrality isn’t enough, nor is merely being non-racist. I know now that I have to include my peers, examine my thoughts, and continue to spark conversations at risk of raising the ire and discomfort of others.
How often do people turn to microaggressions when they don’t get their way, as they did at the coffee shop? How many faces do we try to squeeze in a frame for the sake of our mental confines? And how often do we get a leg up because of our skin color?
I’m not sure, but I’m grateful for all the South Korean coffee to caffeinate me as I continue to find out.