I have thought long and hard about what experience I would voice in this column, as there are many I could choose from. Do I speak to my experience growing up on welfare, the fact that I had a teenage mother, that I am the daughter of an addict, that I am a womyn, that I am Latinx, or that I was first-generation low-income? I have amazing stories about each of these identities, their journeys, my understanding and awareness of them and most importantly how the world moves, reacts and engages with each of them. Now as you wonder which I will choose…I choose none. I choose to speak to my experience as I began and continue to understand my light-skinned privilege in a country where skin color absolutely matters.
To tell this story, I have to start slightly backwards because it was not until my undergraduate experience at Smith College that I was actually able to begin thinking about all the doors of opportunity that were opened for me with a critical lens. It began during my third or fourth trip back home from college. I remember very vividly sitting on a Peter Pan bus, excited to see everyone on the block, but when I got there something was different. People treated me differently, as if somehow going off to college had changed me. For a long time I denied that it did, reaffirming that I was the same person, but it wasn’t enough. It was like everyone saw me changing even before I saw it myself. It was true. I was changing, and so much of that change was centered on asking myself hard and critically necessary questions about my family, my upbringing, my community, my role in it, its place in the world and how all of these things worked as a microcosm of this country. The most important of those questions for me at the time was, why me? I wasn’t the smartest person in my community; I wasn’t even the hardest-working person in my community, so why was I able to navigate through and out while others could not? What was working for me that wasn’t for them?
My inquiry began in the public school system. For as long as I can remember, teachers were kind to me, encouraging and motivating me to try harder and always do my best. I thought for some time that I had somehow deserved that treatment until, upon reflection, it became quite clear that the treatment was different for my darker-skinned friends. That experience had a long-term benefit for me, and students who did not have that same positive, empowering experience had long-term consequences. I was able to excel, explore and grow in an educational environment that didn’t feel hostile or unwelcoming in the way it did for my brown and black friends. I can make this analogy so clearly because my younger sister, who is darker skinned like my father’s side of the family, attended all the same schools that I did and had a very different experience. She was very smart and very eager to be like her big sister, but none of that mattered. Her experience often involved being reprimanded, pushed out of the classroom and sent to the principal’s office. The same teachers that had nurtured and nourished my thirst for knowledge and growth had failed her so much that my mother pulled her out of public school and sent her to Catholic school, hoping that would help. This vast difference was not because she was a bad kid or because she somehow deserved it, but because her skin color made her an easy target. As a result, she internalized hating school and teachers because she felt classrooms were hostile and teachers were mean in a way that my light skin had shielded me from experiencing.
My second inquiry began around mentors and the people around me who took an interest in my success and became personally invested in my journey. These womyn were white and opened doors for me that otherwise may have not opened for this low-income, Latinx from East New York, Brooklyn. Internships at law firms, scholarships to private schools, college application review, financial resources to take PSAT and LSAT prep courses…all the things that set me up to prepare me for future opportunities were doors that these womyn opened. I am grateful as a womyn to have been mentored and invested in by these womyn so unconditionally but again I asked myself, why me? I ask myself where would I be if not for the very clear path each of them lined up for me? Did I have to work hard on those paths? Yes, but was it clearer to see once they opened the door? Absolutely. There is privilege in that open door, and it must be acknowledged.
My third inquiry occurs in the workplace, which stems from a question I was asked not very long ago. The question was along the lines of, why won’t people just teach one another, why are people told to read a book, learn something and then engage? I thought long and hard about this and finally came to understand it through my light-skin privilege quite simply. When it comes to racism, I have not endured nearly the depth of insult, ignorance, hurt and hatred that my black and brown sisters have and as a result I come to the table with a different sense of compassion for others still stumbling through their learning. I haven’t been beaten up, scarred and worn down by macro or microaggressions in the same way. I instead am again shielded from much of this because my skin color is palatable in these institutions. That shield allows me to be open to teaching, to be open to the journey of exploring the ignorance of others with compassion in a way that I would never be able to do if I carried hurt down into the depths of my soul from years of experiencing racism in this country.
Working at Wesleyan has allowed me the space to continue to inquire, engage, grapple with and grow through my learning, most of which is done privately. I have as of late begun to grow with this community publicly, out in the open, to model a way for others to move forward in their own journeys. Though I have many marginalized identities and experiences to which I could speak, the ones that are most pertinent to explore and engage with at the forefront are the identities in which I hold and experience unearned privilege. The reason for that is through understanding my privilege, I can create change and live in a way that I hope inspires and empowers others to do the same. As I continue to interrogate my own privilege in this life-long journey of self-awareness, I urge others to do the same. There is much to learn from understanding our own power and dismantling it if we truly want to live liberated.
Elisa Cardona is the Director of Student Activities & Leadership Development/New Student Orientation.