53 + 31 weeks: A Lesson in Privilege

Dave and Earlene Mora
Dave and Earlene Mora

 

“I’m privileged in a way few people are because I’m the product of a love that was willing to risk all privilege.  

 

 

 

Author’s note: Although originally written in 2010  in the aftermath of anti-Hispanic tensions in Tucson, Arizona, recent post-election events have me thinking once again about the capacity of love to bridge the barriers  much of society wants us to believe exist.

Perhaps not consciously aware of it growing up, as a young adult and still today I’m convinced my parents lived the best romance ever. Without doubt their relationship and marriage – perhaps not always “easy” – was, however, instrumental in shaping my concepts of what it means to give everything for love. ~~

I’ve thought and talked about “privilege” in a variety of situations.  I keep a list of more than fifty ways I’m privileged as a means of staying “awake”.  Some of my privileges have been gained by effort, others have been gained purely through the accident of birth, and others are the result of a hierarchy of privileges created long before I was born.  It’s fair to say that even the privileges I now enjoy by previous effort are first and foremost a result of being born with fair skin.

Skin color is the first privilege on my list.  I’m aware that skin color, gender, access to education, economics, sexual preference, all factor into the formula for determining privilege as well as disadvantages.  I can be on both sides of the privilege coin at any given moment, but fair skin and blue eyes frequently ensure that I will enjoy a favorable position within the realm of privilege.

For a long time I understood privilege conceptually, logically.  My understanding was more academic than experiential.  I’ve come to understand privilege in a new way.

On the outside I appear completely Caucasian, a nondescript  “American”.  My last name, Mora, might be attributed to an Italian heritage or marriage to a Hispanic American.  But Mora is my family name.  It’s of Spanish origin.  By definition on the U.S. Census, on employment applications, loan applications, and education applications, I am Hispanic American.  I am only second-generation American.  However, I don’t speak Spanish.  I never had conversations with my grandparents because we spoke two different languages.

I’ve been told that my grandfather emigrated through Ellis Island from Spain, and met my grandmother on U.S. soil.  She was possibly of Aztec or Mexican descent.  I remember their beautiful skin and hair, darker than my own. I have my grandmother’s odd blue eyes. We had many things in common as you might expect in a family, but two essential things were different – skin color and language.

My father was first-generation American.  He also had beautiful brown skin with dark hair and dark eyes.  My father and his eleven siblings were bilingual long before it was considered an asset; they had no choice.  Neither of my grandparents spoke English and the nuns at the Catholic school didn’t speak Spanish.  His first name was changed from Dario to David for the school’s convenience.

My dad married a White Anglo Protestant woman. Her family disowned her for a several years a result of the union.  My parents were refused leases on apartments in Kansas City as recently as the 1950’s.  No one cared that he had just returned from Germany where he served in the U.S. Army. Based solely on my father’s appearance (what we would call racial profiling today), landlords told my parents to their faces that they did not want my father’s “kind” in their building.

I have two brothers.  The eldest is fair skinned like my mother; the second is brown skinned like my father.  All three of us come from the same set of birth parents.  None of us learned Spanish.  Although my brother’s might disagree (if they’ve every thought about it), I believe my father saw speaking Spanish as a handicap, not an advantage.

Growing up and living in a suburb of Kansas City in the 1960’s, my brown skinned brother was taunted by classmates and called “n****r”.  He hated school and has never gone beyond high school.  My fair skinned brother and I are first generation college graduates of our own making.  Is there a connection?

In June of 2010 I participated in a humanitarian aid project along the Arizona/Mexico border, setting food and water along desert trails so that desperate migrants might have a chance at surviving the harsh desert conditions.  Living in the desert for a week gave me many opportunities for reflection.  People in the desert taught me many things I hadn’t known about U.S. border history and immigration.  Things that help me make sense of why my father may have refused to share an understanding of our Hispanic roots, and may explain his refusal to speak Spanish in our home.

The Immigration Act of 1924 preceded my father’s birth by one year.  My father was born in Kansas in 1925.  I imagine the legislation struck fear into the hearts of my grandparents.  By the time my father was four years old, the onset of the Great Depression was creating a rise in anti-Mexican-immigrant sentiment, resulting “in the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Mexican immigrants between 1929 and 1935, including tens of thousands of U.S. citizens of Mexican descent.”   Did my grandparents and my father live in fear during that time?

In 1954, the INS, under Eisenhower, launched “Operation Wetback”, the mass deportation of thousands of Mexicans from the U.S.  My parents were married in 1952, so this would have coincided with the period when my parents were refused apartment rentals in Kansas City.  Doors slammed in their faces after landlords hurled the words, “We don’t rent to you your kind.”  Is it possible that racial profiling was responsible for deeming my father an unsuitable tenant?  

Fast forward to the present — it’s June 2010 in Tucson.  I’m sitting in the back seat of a Suburban.  My two White, blond-haired colleagues are sitting in the front seat.  We’re returning from our volunteer work in the desert interior.  We never actually left U.S. soil, but Border Patrol has a stop station between the edge of the desert and Tucson’s city limits.  The vehicle stops.  The guard says hello to my two colleagues.  I’m sitting in the back seat, silent, observant, wearing a hat.  The guard sees that someone is in back, but can’t see me fully.  He leans around the driver’s seat and asks, “Who’s back there?”.  He finally notices the fair coloring of my skin, and doesn’t wait for an answer before waving us on.  I wonder, if I’d been born with my dad’s brown skin would Border Patrol have asked for my identification?  What would have happened next after discovering my last name, Mora?

If I had been born with my dad’s skin coloring, if my father had taught me to speak Spanish, and if someone were to ask me to state my full name it would be difficult to walk around Tucson, Arizona today without feeling very self-conscious and afraid. I’d be fearful of citizens who harbor negative feelings toward people with brown skin, citizens who might feel entitled to violate me physically because of my skin color.  I’m a U.S. citizen by birth – ultimately I wouldn’t be deported, but it’s likely that I’d be suspected, questioned, and possibly detained until it could be proven. My fair skin protects me. This is not a privilege I’m particularly proud of.  Actually, it saddens me.

My father would be 90 years old if he were still alive.  Would he still feel justified in repressing our family history and refusing to speak Spanish to anyone but his brothers and sisters in private?  Would he watch the news and tell me, “I told you this was for your own good.”?

I went to court in Tucson. I saw the process by which many undocumented immigrants were repatriated.   Named “Streamline”, it does streamline the judicial process to minutes instead of hours. But is this good?

Chains clanked as brown skinned people walked in and out of the courtroom. Every defendant had brown skin.  Every defendant – male and female – wore shackles at their wrists and ankles.  No distinction was made between those who were simply “guilty” of earning wages to support hungry families and those who were involved in an illegal activity over and above crossing the border. The Judge spoke rapidly, processing and sentencing 80 people in 38 minutes.  I thought, “The Judge and the Public Defenders look more Hispanic than I do.”  Only Border Patrol agents and other security personnel looked White.  I realized I was now the Profiler.  I tried to comprehend what I saw taking place.  I had never seen a human being in chains before except for murderers on television.  But this wasn’t television.  These defendants were in chains primarily because of their skin color and their country of birth.  They were in chains because they lack privilege – something I gained by a random act of birth.

Could this have been the fate of my grandparents?  Might this have been what my father feared as a young man?   Are his fears still realistic?

The conditions for my privileges – white, educated, heterosexual – are not static, but fluid and depend on many external factors that I cannot shed or even always accumulate through effort.  I’m not sure I can divest myself of privilege because I’m not solely responsible for its existence nor the conditions by which it favors me.  On rare occasions I feel the effects of being non-privileged because of my gender – female.  But as a female with fair skin I’m still more privileged in most situations than those of my gender with darker skin.

I entered my Master’s program in 2004 and studied Social Justice, until then it never occurred to me that my father was “different”.  I didn’t give his skin color much thought.  I didn’t understand that others might have seen him as different in a threatening way.  He was simply my dad. I knew he loved me.  I felt safe with him, always. He was my Safety.

Until 2004 I hadn’t understood that in the 1950’s, ‘60’s and ‘70’s my parent’s mixed marriage was unusual.  But it’s here that I discover one lesson in privilege I can be proud of.  Being born into my family afforded me an example of just how irrelevant skin color actually is. My parents loved each other enough to risk family ostracism, unfair housing practices, and random stops by local police who, for over 30 years, would occasionally detain my father on his way to work in the early mornings of the predominantly White suburban neighborhood where we lived.

I’m privileged in a way few people are because I’m the product of a love that was willing to risk all privilege.  

As always, thanks for reading!