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American Privilege in Trump's America

Stages of Resistance

Headshot: Saleena Neval
This piece is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called Stages of Resistance. The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned!

On the night of Tuesday, November 8, I sat in my dorm room crying on Facetime with my Colombian best friend, Gaby. We sat in silence as our hopes for the first female president of the United States were replaced by fear of what a Trump presidency would mean for people like us. I remember asking Gaby, “What are we going to do?” She replied, “I don’t know.”

The following rainy day, I kept mostly to my room. I skipped the three classes I had because I couldn’t bear to hear people talk about “President” Trump. Whenever I did go outside, I found myself looking at people differently; I wondered if they voted for a man that wished to oppress me as a Latina, and I experienced something I never experienced before: fear for my safety.

Gaby and I have it easy, though. We are both moderately light-skinned, and we often get mistaken for being white. I personally have received many conflicting opinions about my racial appearance. My older brother of two years, Ryan, thinks I look 100% white and likes to point this out every time his skin is a few shades tanner than mine, which is all the time. My friends say I definitely look Latina, but that one white kid I got in an argument with a few months ago about race and raising children claimed “your skin’s just as white as mine.”

So, what am I, really?

My racial background is mixed: I’m 75% Puerto Rican and 25% German and Irish. Truth be told, I don’t like to tell people I’m white. I keep the 25% out like it’s a dirty secret.

It’s not shame that makes me hide part of my race. That quarter is just another margin that gives people excuses to disavow my Puerto Rican culture. Most don’t even need to know I’m white. My skin color is enough for them to disregard my cultural claim. They say “you look white” in a tone that sounds like “shut up.”

To some people, it doesn’t matter I grew up surrounded by Puerto Ricans.

My Abuela (who we call Buela because as children, the third syllable was one syllable too many) lived in my house on Staten Island for the first eight years of my life. She babysat my two brothers and I before we were old enough to go to school, and since I’m the youngest, I spent the most quality time with my grandmother.

Mornings with Buela were my favorite parts of the day. She would wake me up at around ten o’clock, and I’d follow the strong smell of Cafe Bustelo brewing in the kitchen. Once the coffee pot was full, she’d pour some into our mugs while I turned on the TV in the living room to channel two. At eleven, we sat on the couch together, dunking Soda crackers into the coffee and watching “The Price is Right.”

Afterwards, Buela popped open a Malta for me and I played with my Barbies while she watched her telenovelas. Occasionally, I’d ask her to translate the particularly dramatic scenes, because even though she and Ma spoke Spanish around my brothers and I constantly, I didn’t understand more than a few words here and there. Then, I’d help Buela make dinner, which often included rice and beans.

I didn’t realize how different my family life was until I compared it to other kids my age (the very idea that rice and beans was not a major food group in other children’s lives blew my mind). Even though I knew I was different, I never felt personally threatened because of it; besides, South Beach, Staten Island is pretty racially diverse. The family to my left was Puerto Rican, like us. The old white couple beside us loved my mom’s chuletas and were often invited to our family parties. My brothers were friends with the Mexican kids across the street, Ryan’s best friends were Puerto Rican and black, and the Italian sisters down the road always knocked on our door asking for us to come out and play.

I didn’t realize I didn’t have white privilege as a Latina until I moved to Scotch Plains, NJ. I learned about white privilege in my high school. Its demographic: 73% white, 12% black, 8% Hispanic, and 6% Asian. Gaby is one of two Latinx friends I had in high school. This was enough for me to learn just how much of a minority I truly am, but when I looked at the statistics nationwide, I had a much deeper understanding. Did you know one in every five voting members in today’s House and Senate are racial minorities. While the percent of minorities in the U.S. is growing, 63.7% of the population is white. The U.S. has had one black president in 238 years since its independence. Looking at these numbers, it isn’t hard to believe white privilege is alive and well, but that isn’t the only privilege that exists.

As a child, I was privileged. Both of my parents were born in the U.S. and had moderately well paying jobs. I grew up in a safe neighborhood with two big brothers to protect me and an extended family who loved me to bits. I woke up every morning with food on the table and went to sleep every night in a warm bed.

Today, I am privileged. I identify as the gender I was born into and I am straight. I am able to go to college and get an education. My parents completely support me financially. I’m not worried about getting deported, and I don’t have any family members or friends who are in danger of being kicked out of the country. I’m not afraid of not being able to marry the person I fall in love with one day. As a Catholic, I’m not deterred from praying in public or merely stating my religious affiliation.

Yet, I still fear for my safety. I’m afraid of not being able to get a job or being paid $0.53 to every $1 a white man will earn. I’m afraid of the courage bigots now have in this country; I’m afraid how easily someone can call me a “spic” without fear of rebuke. I’m afraid for my brothers, who look more Latinx than I do and what that means for them.

I am afraid for my safety in a country where Trump is president. But beyond that, I am afraid for the people who do not have the privilege I have; I am afraid for the immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community, the minorities who do not pass as white like Gaby and I.

The day after Trump got elected, Gaby wrote something on her Facebook page that resonated with me: “I am privileged enough to just have fear for our country, but I pray for those who fear for their own personal safety-- those who have constantly been a target of Trump's rhetoric like Mexican and Muslim Americans. I will always have faith that God will take care of us. That will never change. But it is still very difficult right now to have hope. I pray for our country, and I pray for safety for all Americans in the inevitable aftershocks of protest and violence. God, please bless America. We need it right now.”

This essay is my first answer to the question I asked Gaby. Every American has some type of privilege, and it is so important for us to step up and recognize it, not only to reflect and appreciate how good we have it, but to recognize there are people who do not have it, and to stick up for them. Because in Trump’s America, there’s no us and them. We, as a country, did this. We fear for our futures, but we are the only ones who can change it.