I Am (Not) White, Right?

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I Am (Not) White, Right?

Perhaps I am no longer responsible for helping White people learn about race and racism?

Recently, I joined our department’s racial equity planning committee. After nearly 20 years working in diversity/equity/inclusion (DEI) work in higher education, I thought it would be a good way to learn ways to do this work in a different industry. Yesterday, I introduced the concept of intersectionality with our colleagues on the Zoom call.

For the purpose of our department trainings, we are centering conversations around race and how other oppressions show up through a racialized lens.

And as expected, the first comment was predictable. I have heard a version of this (summarized) comment many, many times:

‘…But why aren’t we talking about X…this is important to me and how I experience the world.’

Today was my first time leading this type of racial equity conversation via Zoom, which meant that the person was able to turn off a camera after making this remark.

Our technology allows people to turn off their cameras rather than sit in the discomfort of talking about race and racism. Photo by Daniel A’Vard on Scopio

And it reminded me in a racialized world, people of color don’t get the option to turn off our cameras when we work with each other in person. That we needed to have this conversation because it is uncomfortable and may show up in other ways in our work.

It was also a reminder of my struggles talking to White people about race and racism. And a call that perhaps I am no longer responsible for doing that type of work moving forward.


I Am (Not) White

I grew up in a Mexican-American community in Central California. A fifth-generation American descended from people from Sonora and Chihuahua, Mexico. My ethnicity has been part of my identity since a child, and I am proud to tell people I am Mexican-American. Not just a Latino, but specifically, Mexican-American.

But I have an Anglicized first name — Joseph — rather than a Spanish name, like Jose. Born in the 1970s this was a purposeful decision on the part of my parents. That name, and the color of my skin, have confused others for as long as I can remember.

Since 2010, the U.S. government asks that my Mexican-American identity fit into two categories: my ethnicity and my race. But growing up, my race was ambiguous to the government: I was Hispanic (Not White). My only other choice, for my skin color, was White (Not Hispanic).

I can only guess for people who do not descend from Latin American countries, that their racial identity would be easier to indicate on official forms. However, my skin color most closely aligns with White people, even though the label (Not White) remained firmly attached. So I grew up believing I was Not White.

Except that I am.

Or at least enough to be considered an insider, as decided by other White people. And for the purpose of social identity, that is enough for me to benefit from some forms of white supremacy.

This is my now daily struggle. I wasn’t raised to believe I was White but I understand more than ever how my White social identity has been crafted in relation to other racial identities.

And I don’t like it.


Still, I Am Not White

Early in my higher education career, I worked in a multicultural affairs office as a program planner. Our office supported students engaging in multicultural student programming and I often represented their interests on various university committees. It was my first real job after completing my master’s degree.

During one high-profile university search for a new police chief, I sat on the committee to review and recommend candidates I believed would work best with our students. In a department staff meeting, our associate vice president, a White woman, brought up the need to make sure that our marginalized students’ voices were heard on the search committee. I raised my hand and reminded the group that I was sitting on the committee.

The associate vice president laughed and said “Joseph, you know you’re White.” Others in the room laughed and agreed with her. I sat there, for the remainder of the meeting struggling with the off-hand comment.

Over 20 years have passed since that remark and I still can hear the laughter when I think of the memory.

I can still hear the laughter from my colleagues and boss about how I know that I am White, even though I never self-identified as such. Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Same Job, Same Racism

In this same job, I was told by a White student that I was an affirmative action hire. How my supervisors considered me qualified because of my ethnicity. That the student was gay, a marginalized identity that I share, was not important to him.

Even in my struggle to sit in my White identity, I am reminded of the power White people have to name our identities and our access to being White. That it is never going to be enough for me to reconcile my internal struggles about my racial identity when other White people can name (or remove) it for me.

So I am an outsider with insider privileges…but only when other White people in the room agreed upon it.


No Longer My Responsibility

I can understand the privileges I am granted by the color of my skin. I also recognize that I am not always granted the privilege to talk about race from the perspective of a White person. That my decades of training and understanding of the literature can be so easily dismissed by a White person uncomfortable talking about race with people who don’t identify as White.

That the conversation requires redirection to a different topic, but without a racialized point of view. And that when uncomfortable, they can disengage from this topic by simply using technology to disappear from the conversation.

This experience, yesterday, reinforced an idea bubbling in my subconscious for the past few years. I no longer have the responsibility to talk about race and racism with White people.

After some thought, I am no longer lost in my identity. I know who I am and where my privileges come from. Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Because I am still subjected to the impact of racism as a Latino. Even though I have been granted some insider status by the nature of my skin color.

Moving Forward as an Educator

I can and will continue to talk to other people of color impacted by oppression caused by racism. But I am no longer comfortable talking to White people about race and racism. And I don’t believe I am responsible for helping them understand their role in perpetuating, colluding with, or allowing racism to occur in our shared community.

I am unsure how this will work in my professional life. But I am going to explore how this will work for me. I believe we can create the strongest change when we use our insider status to create change with those most similar to us. Because I am not always considered White. I have to rely on my more steady identity -that of a Latino man. And this identity remains subjected to racism.


More to Explore

I have more to explore about this topic and I plan to record these thoughts more frequently. I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments and engage with others also interested in the topic.

About Post Author

Joseph Rios, EdD

I am Joseph Rios and I believe that leadership is an expression of our values
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