Never in my wildest dreams would I have considered myself privileged in any sense of the word. You have to understand, I grew up in a poor black and Latino (largely Puerto Rican) neighborhood in Brooklyn (Bushwick) where there was more rubble than actual buildings. There was an abandoned building across the street from ours where crackheads lined up, scratching at their scabs and pacing back and forth until the dealers announced that it was time. Their treats were passed to them through a tiny hole in the wall. If you looked in, you just saw darkness. Put your money in and a vial was pushed out at you. These vials littered our gutters and sidewalks. I had to walk by this building to get to the lumber yard, which was really a supermarket parking lot. That’s where we played. We stayed away from the playgrounds because the dealers and fiends had taken over those.
I didn’t have fancy clothes, save for the frilly dresses mom bought us for Easter and Christmas. I never had the latest sneakers. I had the same coat throughout junior high school, a thin trench coat that didn’t keep out the cold so I had to layer myself with turtlenecks and sweaters. We lived in a railroad style four room apartment where my brother, sister and I had to share a room that had barely enough room for a bunk bed and dresser. The walls were peeling and every morning we woke to find a new web in the corner of the ceiling, a daddy long leg sat twirling a web around the one of the many roaches it had caught. Mom did everything she could to keep the kitten sized rats from the trash-strewn lot next door from coming into our apartment, but every morning we woke to find our bread gnawed into, our garbage ransacked.
Mom’s pots were old, her knives could barely cut into anything, we didn’t have any matching plates, but we had food. Our fridge was always full. I don’t remember a time I ever went to bed hungry. Ever.
I had no idea what poverty really was or the difference between relative and absolute poverty. To see poverty so plainly and pervasively left a profound mark on me. ~ Roxane Gay, “Perculiar Benefits” in Bad Feminist
In 1985 when I was nine, I went to Honduras for the first time with my family. I have a clear memory of going to el Rio Cangrejal in La Ceiba. There were shacks on the river’s edge. I use the term shack purposely because I can’t call them houses. They were made of cardboard. A few had a side (usually just one) made of corrugated aluminum. I thought, “What about when it rains?” but I didn’t dare ask mom. I’d heard enough of her stories of her childhood in Honduras to know that this was one of her triggers.
Children, most just in underwear, played in the river. The same river a cow shat in minutes before, just steps away from where they played.
We lived in Bushwick in the crack era, just after the Fire Wars and the riots of 1977 left piles of rubble as far as the eye could see. I knew we weren’t rich. I knew when I couldn’t ask mom for $2 to go on a trip with school because she’d get mad and call me malagradecida. And yet, we had a solid roof over our heads that wouldn’t fall away when it rained. And we had food on the table and no cow shat in the lakes I swam in.
Fast forward to 1989, when I went to attend high school in Wellesley, Massachusetts, a rich, white suburban town that was so different from anything I’d ever known. I remember seeing my first mansion when a friend invited me over to hang out. I stared up at the Greek columns that framed the entry and didn’t know how to act when I saw that she had her own private bathroom. The bathroom I grew up showering in didn’t even have enough space for a sink.
Imagine entering those so difficult adolescent years in this environment, away from everything you know and love, where you are one of the few who doesn’t get a car when you turn 16, who still can’t have the latest sneakers, who has to work afterschool to get the essentials a girl needs like shampoo and maxi pads. It’s hard enough dealing with all the issues that come with that age without having to deal with issues of class and race.
Yes, there were some racial tensions in my neighborhood but the pervasive issue was poverty. See, it was in boarding school that I learned that I was of color and that I was less than.
I’d been in Wellesley only a few days when the resident directors, a older black couple whom I never saw touch each other tenderly, decided to take us out to a fancy dinner. I remember staring down at the place setting. I’d never had to pick which fork to eat with my salad and which to eat with my dinner. I didn’t know there was a shrimp fork or a soup spoon. I didn’t know you had to put your napkin on your lap. I watched, quietly, my eyes wide with discomfort. I decided I would just mimic what I saw. The girls around the table were scholarship girls like me, ABC students who’d also gone through the rigorous application and interview process. They were all from NY, the seniors were a Boricua and a Salvadoreña, both from the Bronx, the junior was from St. Lucia by way of Brooklyn, the sophomores were a black girl from Harlem and a Dominicana from Brooklyn. I was the only ABC girl entering the freshman class. I was all of thirteen.
I leaned in, hungry to hear their insight, their stories of survival, how they made it in this new world. Maybe their stories would help me. I was already feeling overwhelmed and out of place. I had to sleep with the radio on because the crickets kept me up. Imagine that!
I put my elbows on the table and propped my face in my hands, intent on listening and learning. Seconds later, the junior from St. Lucia glared at me, “You do not put your elbows on the table. Where are you from that you don’t know that?” I yanked my arms back and slumped in my seat. I didn’t say a word for the rest of evening.
Weeks later, I was walking back to my dorm which was two miles away from the main campus. I was walking along the main street, Washington, with that same girl from St. Lucia. The traffic whizzed by us while we walked, not speaking to each other. A truck slowed down and a guy poked his head out of the passenger side window. If I close mye yes, I can still see his red face, his gritted yello teeth, his blonde hair cut into a buzz style. He flicked a lit cigarette at us and screamed, “Go home, niggas!” His mouth yanked into a grimace. We both gasped and dodged the cigarette. It landed right in front of us. She burst out crying. We didn’t say anything for the rest of the walk. We didn’t look to watch the truck drive away and we didn’t look at eachother either. We never talked about what happened.
I came running back to NY for college. As part of the freshman requirements at Columbia University, students had to take a writing class called Logic & Rhetoric. One of the assignments my professor gave was: “Write about what you see when you look out your window.” I wrote about the poverty I knew existed just across Morningside Park when I looked out of my dorm room window on the 9th floor of John Jay Hall on 114th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. I knew that poverty well. My family still lived it. Shit, I still lived it. I may have been studying at an ivy league university but I had to work ridiculous hours (sometimes up to 30+ a week) to pay my tuition and survive. All this while taking a full courseload, mind you. Later, when I was sitting in the lounge talking with some of the other students from my floor, we were talking about the bore that was L&R. A number of them were frustrated that we had to take a remedial writing class. I shared the topic of my most recent assignment but I stopped when I heard someone snickering. “What’s so funny?” I asked. The heat in my chest made me swallow my lips. “Ugh, that’s so whatever, Vanessa. You know what I see out of my window? I see my tennis court and basketball court. That’s what I see.” He rolled his eyes and laughed. This kid was Indian and from California. I knew he was privileged from the $200 khakis, Birkenstocks and LL Bean pull over fleeces he wore. What I didn’t know until then was that he looked down on me and where I was from. I left the lounge a little while later. I didn’t bother to defend myself. I didn’t have the energy to. I was too stuck in my own shame.
It’s hard to see your own privilege when you’ve been through this.
The other day, my friend called herself a “self-made woman” in contrast to me. “You went to prep school, V, then to Columbia. I didn’t.” Something inside me flared up, not anger, but defensiveness. It wasn’t until I read Roxane Gay’s Peculiar Benefits that I really understood where that defensiveness came from.
One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do is accept and acknowledge my privilege…We tend to believe that accusations of privilege imply we have it easy, which we resent because life is hard for nearly everyone. Of course we resent those accusations… [T]he acknowledgement of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been and am marginalized, the ways I have suffered. You don’t necessarily have to do anything once you acknowledge your privilege. You don’t have to apologize for it. You need to understand the extent of your privilege, the consequences of your privilege, and remain aware that people who are different from you move through and experience the world in way you might never know anything about.
For a long time (and maybe on some unconscious level even to this day), many of the moves I made were dictated by an intense want for respect. I left my mother’s house at 13 because I was trying to save my own life, but I think in many ways it was also because I thought maybe if I did this, if I showed her how smart and self-sufficient I was, she would finally respect me.
I went to an Ivy League university because I thought that would make people respect me. And by people I mean white people (I was still caught up in the white gaze); those white people who looked down on me, who yelled “Rosie” as I walked down the hall because Rosie Perez as Tina in Do the Right Thing was the only context they had of a Latina in that era; and, yes, even those people from back home in Bushwick who called me gringa and sell out when I came home and used the words awesome and psyched (the sentence “that’s so awesome, I’m so psyched” doomed me to the status of outsider). And that’s why I was so broken by that college professor (my mind has erased his name) who handed back one of my pieces (which was about my growing years in the hood) and said, “this isn’t writing,” and he didn’t even have the cojones to look at me when he said it. So I went home and I cried and I learned to write the way they wanted me to write. Incidentally, I didn’t take another workshop until my first VONA/Voices in 2009, and it was at VONA that I learned I was writing for the white gaze. It took some serious work to unlearn that.
It didn’t take long after college for me to realize that a degree wouldn’t automatically garner any level of respect.
I was still in my graduation gown, the one with the Columbia crown stitched on the lapel, when my mother flipped out on me because I said I wasn’t going to law school. “Yo sabía que tu no íbas a ser ni mierda con tu vida.” She yelled it across the table for everyone in my favorite Italian restaurant on the upper west side to hear.
I can’t count how many times I’ve been condescended and looked down on because I’m a woman and Latina, a woman of color. My ex would say, “tu tienes grajo?” (more of a statement than a question) when I demanded he respect me, as if respect was reserved only for men. Another ex said, “you think you’re a man” every time I pushed back and refused to crumble under his verbal abuse.
When I was working in the non-profit world as an editor, the CEO of the organization wrote an article for Fast Money magazine where she referred to me as the “Latina single mom.” No mention of my education or my publishing credits.
The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story”
So, when my friend called herself a “self-made woman” in contrast to me, I heard “you’re not self-made and you didn’t have to work as hard” though that wasn’t really what she was saying. I had to rein in my defensiveness. I had to see that she had a point. The fact is: I am privileged.
Yes, I’ve been taking care of myself for 25 years, and I’m only 38. Yes, I’ve struggled so much, I’ve been homeless and hungry, I’ve been alone, I’m still very much in debt for that ivy league education and still wonder how I am going to pay that off. I still live to check to check. I know what it is to stretch the shit out of $20, know what it is to have to work a job I hate to make ends meet. Shit, I just got a dispossess notice this morning, and, yet and still, I’m privileged, even if I wince writing it, I am.
Quitting the safety net of a full-time editing job to live this writing-teaching dream was a risk, but having the ability to do that is also a privilege. Yes, I’ve worked my ass off for years. Yes, I’ve sacrificed. Shit, I had to opt out of attending a writing residency in a cottage in Cape Cod this past weekend because with my daughter’s birthday being nine days away and school starting in two weeks, it would have been unwise of me to spend that money on the residency. Instead, I sacrificed and spent the weekend writing in the park instead. (That’s where I am right now—in the park, writing and editing.)
I am privileged. I am a privileged woman of color who has worked and continues to work incredibly hard. That doesn’t negate anything. It’s simply the truth. Today I had to check my own privilege.