I'm A Mixed-Race Woman But Everyone Thinks I'm White — Which Hurts My Pride But Gives Me Privilege
"We can't help you here," was all the receptionist would tell me. I was 20 years old, living in Plainview, Texas, and trying to see a doctor — I was a week post-op from an invasive knee surgery, and my knee was red, swollen, painful, and starting to smell. I knew I needed to see a physician soon.
"Spell your last name for me again," the receptionist asked. "C-A-M-P-O-A-M-O-R. Campoamor. You have my medical records," I replied.
"I'm sorry, but we just can't accommodate you," was all the woman could manage to say.
"Look. I have insurance."
"Oh," she replied. "I'm sorry. I just assumed. Well, we can see you in an hour."
The woman — who couldn't see me but identified my last name as Hispanic — assumed I didn't have insurance. I knew it, she knew it, and in light of her racist assumption, I decided I would rather go to a hospital than sit in a comfortable doctor's office. I waited, on crutches, for two hours at a local emergency room.
That story isn't notable because I experienced discrimination. It's notable because that was the first time I had ever experienced discrimination. In 20 years. While I am a Puerto Rican woman, I am very white-looking. Extremely white-looking, in fact. In high school my friends (most of whom were white) would call me the "tan white girl," or the "Tropical Mexican." It was in jest, to be sure, but the whitewashing of my ethnicity has been a constant throughout my life.
"I see you identify as Hispanic, but..." I can feel the condescending eyebrow raises of white people who speculate that I just "want attention" when I correct someone who has mis-identified me by saying, "Well, actually, I'm Puerto Rican." Their eyebrows say, "Sure." Their scoffs say, "Whatever." Their looks say, "But, um, you look white." I imagine them thinking, "I see you don't wear big hoop earrings or have a walk that says you're 'Jenny From The Block.' You don't fit my ideas of what a Puerto Rican woman looks like. I'm sorry, you must be mistaken."
As a young woman growing up in a small, predominantly white community in Alaska, constantly being pegged as just another "tan white girl" was a consistent annoyance. It was, and is, frustrating. It was, and it, demoralizing. It made me feel foolish when my attempts at rightfully claiming my identity were often laughed at by those who have a preconceived notion of what a "true" Puerto Rican woman should look like (and, in fact, it still does).
I wanted to be different, because I had yet to experience the prejudice, hatred, and high possibility of violence associated with being the "other." I didn't see the privilege in my perceived whiteness — only the pain of having to fight for a piece of my identity. I was positioned on the edge of a socially contrived box, my identity not black or white but some vague grey that made it easy to just assume I was something I wasn't. Not only did I want people to know who I really was, but I wanted to feel validated in who I really was, too.
Armed with the angst only one's teenage years can provide, my privilege continued to allude me even as I watched my father experience blatant discrimination, sometimes when he was side-by-side with his blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white wife. My mother could go cash a check at our local bank, for example, and avoid showing any identification. She had my father's last name — the same last name I have now — but she was white. To the tellers, she was trustworthy. She was "safe." My father, however, had to show three pieces of identification to deposit a check of the same amount into his own account. I stood behind him, my mother (having finished depositing her check without so much as an inquiry) next to me, unsure of what I was witnessing while simultaneously aware that I was caught somewhere in between their juxtaposing experiences. I was dark like my father, but not as dark. I was white like my mother, but not necessarily white enough.
Then I moved out of my small Alaskan town to larger, more diverse cities (like Seattle and New York City) and was faced with owning the privilege that comes with being essentially "unidentifiable." Sitting in a bar at the tender age of 25, I listened as a drunk patron went on about "The Mexicans." I pointed out that I'm Hispanic, too, only to have that drunk patron slur the words, "Yeah, but clearly you're not that Hispanic," as if the hue of my skin dismissed the possibility that I might share any of the traits that he found so worthy of scorn in other Hispanic people.
While the receptionist refusing to schedule an appointment for me was dangerous and indicative of the ever-present systemic racism people of color are forced to endure on a daily basis, I know it wouldn't have happened if that receptionist had been able to look at me. My last name might say "Hispanic" but my skin color says white, and that ability — the ability to be perceived as a white woman and, as a result, take advantage of the privileges that come along with that perception— would have undoubtedly aided me in securing an appointment with a physician. After all, it took 20 years for me to experience racism of any kind, because of my skin color.
I have the ability to "blend in" and wrap myself in the safety that comes with owning a visibly white body. My ego is bruised when someone scoffs any time I check the "Hispanic" box on a form, or I proudly proclaim that I enjoy and grew up eating Arroz Con Gandules or Lengua or Pollo Fricassee, but my body isn't. I can care for a broken ego far more easily than I can a broken body. I can fold my ego into a small square, hide it in the far corner of my rib, and carry that small, sharp pain with me; hidden and intact.
But people of color do not have that luxury.
They cannot hide behind and find comfort in the preconceived notions of others. When strangers make assumptions regarding my presumed ethnicity, they revolve around "weakness" or "passivity." I'm a "silly white woman" and an "incapable feminist." I am not taken seriously and I am feeble and I am, at worst, "an easy target," but the physical danger is minimal when compared to the dangers women of color face. Women of color are almost always referred to as "loud" and "angry" when they express any emotion — or even no specific emotion at all. They are not cloaked in the protection that toxic masculinity provides white women — the cloak that claims that white women are passive and inept, but women of color are volatile. An African American woman is eight times more likely to be imprisoned than a European American woman. Latina women report rape at a 2.2 percent higher level than white women. A reported 40 percent of Black women report "coercive contact of a sexual nature" by the time they turn 18. "On my more difficult days, I’m not sure what’s more of a pain in my ass—being black or being a woman," writes Roxanne Gay in a 2012 essay for The Rumpus. "I’m happy to be both of these things, but the world keeps intervening."
The presumption of my whiteness is why I was able to drive home safely after a police officer stopped me for making an illegal turn. I was driving with an expired license, it was late at night, and I was alone. However, I wasn't afraid. I knew I could rely on the assumptions the police officer was sure to make. I was allowed to drive safely to my apartment while the officer "looked the other way," as long as I promised to pay my unpaid parking tickets and straighten out my license. Does it negate the heavy knot in the back of my throat whenever a man of authority towers over me? Does it erase the thoughts that quickly flood my mind anytime I'm pulled over by a police officer, as I remember the stories of men posing as police officers in order to rape women? No, it does not. However, that privilege is present and it aided me. Sandra Bland cannot say the same.
The presumption of my whiteness is why three white men stopped and let me know they were present when I confronted a street harasser. They slowed their pace, lingered, and eyed the would-be intimidator while subtly looking in my direction. Their presence impacted the situation drastically, and I was able to walk safely home. Does that privilege negate the others times people have not stopped to help? Does it erase the night I was sexually assaulted by a coworker? Does it nullify the undeniable fact that, statistically, I have a 1 in 5 chance of being sexually assaulted again? No, it does not. However, that privilege is present, and it aided me in a time when I could have been hurt. The 21 transgender women who were murdered in 2015 — most black or Latina — cannot say the same.
The presumption of my whiteness is why I was able to attend the Women's March on Washington and leave the protest safe, unscathed, and of my own accord like the many other white-appearing women. The massive amount of white bodies (including my own) changed the tone of those who oppose protests. Does that privilege negate the fact that I grew up in a physically abusive home? Does it erase the number of times I've been forcefully touched by a man in public, who simply thinks he has the right to grab my arm because he's a man and I'm a woman? No, it does not. However, that privilege is present, it aided me (and thousands of others) and is why the women marching were decried by conservative commentators as "pointless," while people of color marching in Black Lives Matter protests are decried by the same commentators as "threatening."
The presumption of my whiteness makes me feel safer when I speak my mind, walk along a sidewalk at night, or question those who have authority over me. I am not the target of racism. I am not the target of hatred. I am just a white woman.
On the right side of my hip, I have a black and white tattoo of an hibiscus — the national flower of Puerto Rico. Like the ink of that tattoo, being Puerto Rican is a part of me that can remain hidden, even if it's the result of narrow-minded, stereotypical ideas of what Hispanics "look like." Unless I lift up my shirt and show the delicate lines of a particularly painful tattoo, no one would know it exists. Unless I explicitly tell someone I am Puerto Rican, very few people would know I actually am.
That is a privilege.
It doesn't mean it doesn't hurt. It doesn't mean it doesn't leave me both within and without, in the middle of some strange social divide most mixed-raced individuals are forced to inhabit. It doesn't mean my pride isn't constantly hit with a one-two punch. However, the assault on my pride is nothing compared to an assault on my body.
If I am to be a better ally to women of color, especially as our current president continues to attack marginalized groups with legislations like the recent executive order to temporarily prevent immigrants from seven primarily Muslin countries from entering the U.S., I have to set that pride aside. How I feel pales in comparison to the actual safety of others; a safety that is being threatened by those who take the president's hateful rhetoric as a silent permission to unapologetically hate and discriminate. How I want to be perceived pales in comparison to the racist perceptions others are simply trying to survive. My great great grandmother's name is etched in stone on Ellis Island. She came to this country from Spain and I, like every single American who is not of Indigenous decent, am a product of immigration to this country. Still, I don't "look" like an immigrant. I am not the perceived "other" the current president and his administration have labeled potentially dangerous. My skin is a few shades too white to be "vetted." I can pass through airport security without so much as a second glance. After all, I'm just a white girl.
The safety afforded to me as a white-looking non-white woman is a safety I can use to the advantage of those who weren't randomly born into such an influential position. It does not downplay the difficulties I have experienced in my life (of which there are many) or the hard work I have continuously put forward to overcome certain circumstances. However, it plays a significant part in aiding me in becoming who I am today; a woman who has privileges so many others do not. It's time I, and women like me, start using it. I refuse to answer the calls of women of color the way the overworked, probably underpaid receptionist answered mine.
Instead of saying, "We can't help you here," I say, "We can. We can, and we will."