I’m white. I’m not poor. I’m not rich, but I’m still privileged. Let’s talk about it.
In the fall and summer of 2012 and 2013, I took Spanish I and II for my foreign language requirement. Although I passed with two A’s, let’s just consider myself a try-lingual. Not as in the indication of a third language like trilingual, but as in I try to speak Spanish and it comes out as jumbled, apologetic Spanglish.
I’ve worked in restaurants since the ripe age of sixteen with exposure to many people of various cultures and languages, most of them Spanish-speaking. While I started as a hostess, I looked up to those who served and even higher up to those who bar tended, mainly people who are white and/or have class privilege. Within the basic process of learning and growing within the restaurant industry, I gained gratitude and recognition for those who worked the hardest (who happen to coincidentally get paid the least): dishwashers, and prep/line cooks, mainly people who are not white and/or without class privilege.
In my previous restaurant jobs, I’ve come to learn who these individuals are and admire their dedication and work ethic. Many of them carry two-plus jobs while balancing their lives as parents. I used to ignore the back of the house dishwashers and prep/line cooks as if they were mere shadows, faceless silhouettes. I worked hard and made really good money. My mom started clipping the umbilical cord at age 16. So when I say I worked hard, I did.
“You son of a b*tch! Reattach it!”
But I hadn’t worked as nearly hard as the “shadows” had. Because of my privileged white ass. Because, without sounding like an ass, I am considered attractive, and I have relied heavily on my looks to get jobs, particularly in restaurants. Because I am a woman who can’t solely rely on her brain to get a job (it’s pretty big and spectacular; no plastic surgery either). From my experience in the restaurant, class and racial status separates the naive and ignorant into their own imaginary cubicles with towering gray walls. It is because of taking a Spanish language course that I not only learned verb conjugations and conversational Spanish, but I also learned that those gray walls are weak and can be knocked down through the basic instinct of human connection.
Through life, sometimes I am stopped to practice human connection in a spectrum of ways that have compensated who I am for the thirst of connection with the other person. If someone speaks negatively, I coat my mouth with a negative tongue. If someone speaks of something I don’t agree with, I laugh as if I too agree. It is because of this ritual of donning heavy coats of variations of the English language and taking each one off only to don on a new one, that each one becomes increasingly heavier than the last. I am a mirror to the figure in front of me. I want to be liked. I want to be liked by people I don’t even like.
Speaking conversational Spanish with the once “shadows of the restaurant” gave each of them vibrant colors of bright yellows, seasoned oranges, and deep purples of their culture, personal and historical. As I spoke tangled sentences, Chava, Gregorio, and José were patient to untangle and reweave their first language and hand it back to me like a friendship bracelet. I didn’t need to be like them to be liked. In fact, we liked each other even more for our differences. Simple conversations about the weather in Spanish blossomed into friendship, while simple conversations about the weather with English-speaking coworkers remain as fillers for voids and silences. It wasn’t the words. It was how we said them. What they really meant: “Let’s learn about each other.”
Our culture is known for being individualistic. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The American dream is prevalent for all who grow up in America and those who obliviously learn about America in other countries. It promotes healthy competition and goal orienting, but the problem with individualism is that it becomes a problem when the level is so high that we often forget about those around us- family, friends, coworkers, acquaintances- who have common goals to seek joy and purpose in their lives.
We run around as if the supply of joy is running out, and it’s survival of the angriest and most closed off in order to grab onto what little we can find.
We make eye contact with a stranger and our eyes run to escape into shallow cracks of concrete, lit screens of our cellphones, or fixate on the emptiness of space in front of us. People don’t even have to be strangers for this to happen. People don’t even have to be another race for this to happen.
Culture touches everyone, sometimes it feels light, and other times it hits hard on the head. I am no saint in the things I have portrayed above. I have participated in racist jokes, laughing and sharing them with others. I have joined in on the anger of hearing the operator ask me to “press 1 for Spanish” and “press 2 for English.” I have used up what little energy I have left from worrying about myself to avoid friends of the past in grocery stores, malls, and more.
Each and every one of these acts I learned from the culture around me and chose them like a rite of passage. It wasn’t until I was educated by other means that I was able to open my mind’s eye that revealed a passage that has always been an option. For some, it does take education for us to try- these are the students. For others who have have learned and practiced compassion, it is the passage they know well– these are the teachers.
If we continue to support the hiding in cracks of concrete and bolding the intangible lines of racism, we will miss out on opportunities, lessons, the joy of sharing eye contact, a simple smile, and unexpected conversations about the weather that turn into conversations sharing an overlap of one another’s souls. It is these interactions that will attribute to political activism, redefining what it means to be the human race, and making informed decisions based on work ethic and not what meets the eye.
P.S. Here’s a photo of my white privileged ass.