April 5, 2016

ZUMBA | White Passing Privilege

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It is really easy to make assumptions about people at first glance. We’ve been strongly socialized to make quick judgements about people we may know nothing about. It takes a large amount of effort to actively try to work against all the assumptions you’ve been trained to make. In a way, it is like unlearning what you have been taught, which is something that requires constant active engagement. This is a particularly interesting issue in regards to people who are white passing.

Different races and ethnicities are often associated with a certain stereotypical look despite both concepts being more complicated than that. The media creates the ideas of what it means to be any person of color, so it is hard to deter from those images. It is another one of the many categories that people try to put others in. A person can look white, but strongly identify as a person of color.

That being said, I know from experience that even being white passing isn’t something definite. I have met people who have thought I was white because of how pale I am, so in that relationship, in that space, I had the privileges that come with being white passing. It is interesting to think about how it is always about how another person perceives me rather than the way I perceive myself. Another person’s idea of me still manages to affect me by providing me privilege.

Even so, it is not consistent, which really confuses me. I personally don’t understand how I’m white passing when all of my facial features are dark and my hair is so curly. I’ve had this conversation with others who don’t think I can be passing at all, which makes it evident that it is completely situational even if I’m unaware of how I am being perceived.

I’ve come to realize that as long as I know how I identify, then it doesn’t really matter how I’m labeled by others. I know that I’m a Latina and I’m a person of color, so it doesn’t really matter if occasionally someone thinks I’m white, and the majority of the times I’ve been perceived as white has been with white people. It may be on account of the media representation of Latinx people because that may be only basis people have for what people of color “look like.”

Although I’m not white and may not be white passing, I still benefit from the fact that my skin is lighter. How a person identifies doesn’t matter when people judge based on perception, and anti-Blackness in the United States is rampant. My “issue” of being misread is actually a benefit because my lighter skin prevents me from being attacked in the way that people with darker skin continuously are. It is the idea of colorism, which is discrimination based on skin color. Every person of color has their own unique way they are discriminated against and part of what may contribute to those differences is skin color.

Anti-Blackness is a really big problem even within communities of color. There is the idea that the lighter skinned a person is, the better they are (which of course is absurd). It is another way we’re socialized to think about race and create hierarchies that even occurs in communities of color, which people often think would be free from discrimination. I think that within the context of the United States, we can be assimilated into having discriminatory thoughts because that is the norm in this society. These standards can even spread globally on account of the United States’ imperialism.

No matter how frustrated I become due to being misread, I find that I cannot be that upset because that is a form of complicated privilege that I have as a person of color with lighter skin. It also serves as a reminder that not all people of color experience the same forms of discrimination, even if there are times when they overlap.

Sarah Zumba is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at sez29@cornell.edu. Zumba Works it Out appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

2 thoughts on “ZUMBA | White Passing Privilege

  1. I’m confused. How can a person be non-white if her skin is so white that most people perceive her as white? Is it something internal, as opposed to skin color, that makes a person white or non-white?

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