Protesting in N.Y.C. as a white-passing Latinx showed me exactly how privilege works
The world we live in shapes how we view ourselves—and how others view us. But what happens when there’s a mismatch between cultural narratives and individual identities? In our monthly series The Blend, writers from multicultural backgrounds discuss the moment that made them think differently about these dominant narratives—and how that affects their lives.
Along with hundreds of thousands of people across the country, singer Halsey has been protesting against police brutality and systemic racism in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other Black people who’ve been killed by current or former police officers. On June 3rd, Halsey, who is biracial, tweeted, “im white passing. It’s not my place to say ‘we.’ It’s my place to help. I am in pain for my family, but nobody is gonna kill me based on my skin color. I’ve always been proud of who I am but it’d be an absolute disservice to say ‘we’ when I’m not susceptible to the same violence.”
As a Puerto Rican who benefits similarly from the protections, opportunities, and advantages of appearing white, the musician’s comments resonated with me.
My father was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, while my mother, a white woman, was born in Madison, South Dakota. Growing up in a small town outside of Anchorage, Alaska, I was able to pass as white alongside my classmates and local community. As a result, I was never subjected to the racism aimed at my Black and Brown peers, never targeted by the students whose heavy-duty diesel trucks donned Confederate flags, and never made to feel as though I was the “other.”
That said, it was, and still is, painful to have my identity whitewashed by a culture rooted in purposeful ignorance and the belief that Latinx people only look “one way.” I felt disconnected from a vital part of my identity—a rift made greater by my inability to speak Spanish fluently. A large part of who I was was overlooked; instead, I was labeled the “fancy Mexican” or the “how did you get your skin that tan?” white girl or the girl “pretending” to be “ethnic” for “attention.”
Yet, in some instances, my heritage was blatantly obvious. When I’d visit my white grandparents, I’d be the only brown-haired, brown-eyed, olive-skinned person in family pictures, save my Puerto Rican father. I was caught between what felt like two polarizing worlds, unsure of where I belonged or fit in.
This continued into adulthood when, after I began working in media, I was asked to write openly about topics like sexual assault, child abuse, and domestic violence but never about issues pertaining to my Puerto Rican heritage. To my white colleagues and managers, creating “traumatized white woman content” was seemingly more important than creating biracial or Latinx content. My ethnicity was acknowledged occasionally at the office; I was asked to imperfectly translate the words of immigrant children at the border, spoken in Spanish, and my white coworkers made jokes about my “fiery” passion. But externally, attaching my white-passing face to Latinx content (unless it was content explicitly discussing my whiteness) was, seemingly, not an option, likely because I didn’t “look the part.”
That hurt me, but that pain paled in comparison to the pain frequently endured by Black and Brown Americans—especially those who cannot pass as white and who are disenfranchised, dehumanized, and disproportionately impacted by systemic white supremacy and insidious racial injustice.
While attending protests in New York City this week, I have once again witnessed how my white-passing privilege not only protects me but also emphasizes that it’s my responsibility to help dismantle the racist system making it possible for me to pass through spaces dangerous to Black people. One night, I saw a police officer forcefully shove a Black man who was peacefully protesting. As instructed by the Black leaders of the march, myself and another white or white-passing woman put our bodies in between the officer and the Black protestor.
Immediately, the officer’s demeanor changed. He did not engage with us or beat us with his baton.
The line the officer and his colleagues were attempting to hold softened, and as more of us stood between the officers and Black protestors, the officers dispersed entirely and allowed us to pass. It was not our bodies that served as shields but the privilege our bodies have been afforded. None of us looked, as the president has said, like a “thug,” a “lowlife,” or a “loser.”
I was seen as a white woman, and I was protected because I was, to that police officer, a white woman.
Of course, this was hardly the first time my white-passing privilege has protected me from police brutality or even a night in jail. In my 20s, when I drove drunk, lost control of my vehicle, rolled my car three times, and then left the scene, the officer who eventually contacted me at home simply said, “We’re just glad you’re okay.” And in my teens, when certain white officers were well-known for harassing Black and Brown students, they often left me alone, save the few instances I was asked kind, genuine, personal questions about my life.
My father, who is not white-passing, lived a very different reality when he moved to the continental United States in his teens. He often shared stories of the blatant, open racism he experienced, especially as a Puerto Rican man dating—and, later, marrying—a white woman. Once, when he and my mother went to the bank to deposit identical amounts of money into a shared account, my mother was not asked to provide an ID. My father, meanwhile, was asked to provide not one but two forms of identification as a security officer stood directly behind him.
He experienced the fear of openly speaking Spanish in high school and the bullying and fighting that came with being a minority in a predominantly white community. But he would also joke about why he married my mother, his second white wife, saying that he told his mother, my abuela, that he would never marry a Puerto Rican woman: “They’re too loud, too much work, and, eventually, their beauty fades and they look unattractive in their old age.” Even as a young person, I recognized the benefits, both shallow and substantial, of looking white that were implied in my father’s comments. As white, I would be considered more conventionally attractive. I wouldn’t be viewed as “angry” or “loud” or “threatening.” I would be more lovable.
I also felt—and still feel—guilty and saddened by that. I’m guilty for feeling thankful that I am afforded protection I have not earned; protection other family members have never experienced; protection my non-white neighbors, coworkers, and friends must live without. And I’m sad for the parts of me that do not feel enough. Not Puerto Rican enough. Not Latinx enough. Not worthy enough of a vibrant, rich culture that has always felt out of reach.
But I know that I am granted the space, the mental health resources, the time for “self-care,” and the understanding of others to work through and process these emotions. I, in all my imperfections and continued self-exploration, continue to exist, while so many Black and Brown people, because of the color of their skin, do not. And as someone who had her first child at the age of 27—the age Breonna Taylor would have turned today, had she not been shot and killed in her sleep by police officers—it is my responsibility to use the privilege afforded to me to ensure that those who cannot navigate these white spaces are provided the same opportunities that I have gotten. They deserve the chance to make mistakes, to explore their identities, and to decide when, if, how, and with whom to start families.
Today, my two children, who are also Puerto Rican and also white-passing, are made safer by the very system that allows police officers to murder Black people with impunity. What did not protect Tamir Rice when he was playing in the park protects my kids when they play in the park behind our apartment. What did not protect Emmett Till when he was accused of “offending a white woman” protects my 5-year-old son when he refuses to tell someone “hi” or throws a tantrum in a grocery store. What did not protect Trayvon Martin when he went to buy a pack of Skittles will protect my children when, one day, I send them to the corner bodega for a gallon of milk. What did not protect George Floyd when he called out for his mother as he was dying protects my children when and if they call out for me if they need help.
And what did not protect Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Tanisha Anderson, Atatiana Jefferson, Charleena Lyles, Sandra Bland, Natasha McKenna, Rekia Boyd, Kayla Moore, Shantel Davis, Malissa Williams, Mariam Crey, and the countless other Black women who have been killed by police—and are often forgotten or an afterthought—protects me. The 52% of white women who voted for Donald Trump know they are protected by white supremacy and the policies enacted to sustain and perpetuate it.
And my white passing privilege tells me, every day, that I am, too.