A Chicana's Ongoing Journey To Leave White Supremacy Behind
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By Sam Varela
I have always felt conflicted within my identity as a white Mexican American.
I was raised most of my life in very white, affluent Southern California neighborhoods that included Burbank, La Jolla, Torrey Pines and Irvine. There was always a clear class barrier between us and the "rich white people." Or at least, this was the dynamic presented to me as a child from my parents, parents of friends, school, et cetera.
I was told that I was Mexican on both sides of my family and had family in El Paso and Juárez, but we rarely if ever saw them, and the family we did see was light-skinned and highly Americanized.
And yet as a child I remember a white, non-Latinx friend's parents using me as an example, telling her if I could "do it" (get good grades) then she should have no problem doing it. The implication being that because I was different — i.e. non-Anglo and "lower class" — and yet still thriving academically, then she, with more resources and monetary incentives to get good grades, should be able to do the same or better.
Instances like these made it very clear to me that I was not "white-white" — I was just living around a lot of "white-white" people. Even in these white spaces, my best friends were usually POC children. I even got in trouble a few times as a kid defending immigrants who couldn't speak English from school administrators who had no patience for them.
I identified with the "other," and I learned early on that those in power don't treat everyone equally.
My father, a highly respected public defender, taught me about the criminal justice system from a young age. It was instilled in me that Black and Brown men were targeted, and that once they were in this system, it was designed not to let them out.
My dad's legacy is one of caring about his clients and working tirelessly to find the legal loopholes needed to protect the innocent from being locked away. He used the system against itself.
As a young adult, this separation from whiteness greatly affected my world view.
I have been working in entertainment for more than 12 years now, specifically in comedy.
I was aware early on that my skin color allowed me access to jobs and worlds that I didn't see Black and Brown folx occupying, and I often felt like I "made the cut" due to my white skin. Whether it was due to discrimination, racism or racial biases, the fact was that I was often either the only one, or one of a few, minority employees in predominantly white work spaces.
But it wasn't just my white skin — I think one of my most valuable traits was my ability to code-switch and communicate with people of all backgrounds and classes in the subservient, ego-stroking language that the entertainment industry demands. I was non-threatening.
It was my understanding of the hierarchy, and my place in that hierarchy, that got me jobs all around the country. I've worked in management, at a talent agency, in public relations, in college radio while I was at UC Irvine, in various comedy clubs, in live event production, in podcast production, and in my chosen career now, which is independent talent booking and producing.
But while I watched my white counterparts get promotions and advance up the ladder, I never saw a ladder. I saw other people climbing ladders, but I was never presented with a ladder to climb. Instead I tolerated tyrannical bosses and tiny raises.
This ability to tolerate the worst jobs, to take what we can get, is a shared trait I've encountered among my group of Latinx friends in entertainment. The more you can let it slide off your back often determines if you get promotions.
But at each job I had, I would use my access to power to learn all I could about different facets of "the biz" in order to find a way to open doors for women and performers of color.
I did it because the longer I worked in entertainment, the more I saw predominantly straight white males getting most of the stage time. It was insulting to see that Black and Brown comics were not getting an equal chance to perform on big stages — and boring to see the same type of comedian over and over.
I saw more than one famous straight white male comedian known to be a sexual predator get preferential treatment before eventually being publicly accused. And even after admitting to their misconduct, these men were still getting stage time, more than many of their Black and Brown counterparts.
So it's been important to me since starting my career to be someone who could recognize talent in underrepresented comedians, so that I could support them as they tried to access the stages and spaces that held industry sway — and the power to help make someone's career.
Part of why I love producing shows and podcasts is that it's a direct way to amplify a comedian to a new audience, and help them grow their career.
THE 2020 UPRISINGS
I started thinking more critically about all this last summer.
During the most recent Black Lives Matter uprisings after police killed George Floyd and Breonna Taylor (among MANY others), I became fixated on systemic white supremacy.
Being "white-passing" is a very specific existence. It's one that I have discussed often with my fellow white-passing Latinx friends. It includes an inherent feeling of otherness from both one's heritage and from white culture, "ni de aqui, ni de alla," which translates to "'neither from here or there."
While I present as very Americanized, with white skin, I was still asked at every job I've had if I spoke Spanish — which made it feel like not being a Spanish speaker made me less "Hispanic."
I was neither white nor Brown enough.
Growing up, Spanish was not allowed in our house, and eight years of Spanish classes in high school and college were barely absorbed, despite trying my best.
As an adult, the inability to speak Spanish made me feel disconnected from Latinx entertainment spaces, such as NALIP or Más Mejor. In spaces like these, it felt to me like speaking Spanish, or at least a having a connection to one's Latinx heritage, was mandatory. This is partly why most of my career in comedy has been in mostly white spaces, because I didn't feel like I fit in within the Latinx spaces or get those kinds of opportunities.
"White-passing" is this nebulous identity, but through talking with friends and connecting with others on social media, I saw that it was an experience shared by many, and it was nice to be less alone in this part of my identity.
Around last September, I was talking with a comedian about how they wanted to book the show we were producing together. They mentioned wanting a lot of Black and Brown faces on the show, which I fully supported. Then I asked whether they meant specifically "Black and Brown" faces, or if that directive included POCs that looked white as well.
We began discussing the term "white-passing." The comedian interpreted it as describing someone trying to be white and intentionally distancing themselves from their heritage and racial identity, or striving for proximity to whiteness. Think Tisha Campbell's character in Spike Lee's "School Daze."
As for me, I had come to associate "white-passing" with a long-sought-after identity as a person with Mexican/Latinx heritage who deals with the double-edged blessing and burden of being a white Latinx. But fearing I might have been putting my foot in my mouth using it, I started researching the term and how it applied to me, and to my white Latinx friends.
'LATINO' AND 'HISPANIC'
"White Passing" was the first term I googled when I went online to try to piece together my identity. My learning journey has been defined mostly by researching phrase-by-phrase terms that I had heard before in relation to Latinx culture, but never fully understood.
Two ubiquitous terms that I had never thought to define were "Latino" and "Hispanic," and I soon found out why their origins were so mysterious.
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I learned that in 1980, after a few failed attempts to categorize Latin American citizens and immigrants, the U.S. government created a "Spanish/Hispanic origin" category as an ethnicity option on the census forms to easily categorize anyone of Spanish-speaking or Latin American origin, but not as a racial option. "Latino" was added in 2000.
These two terms, "Latino" and "Hispanic," effectively reduce more than 20 different countries and cultures from all over the world into one monolith — cultures and identities that include Black, White, American, Spanish, English, French, Chinese and countless more racial, ethnic, and immigrant experiences at varying socioeconomic and class levels.
I was astonished to learn that in the U.S., Latino and Hispanic were not terms created by the Latinx community to unify. They are blanket categorizations resulting from white supremacy, where white is the default — and everything else is an "other" category. Where white is the safest category in terms of discrimination and segregation.
My experience as a third-generation, English-speaking, middle-class, American-born Mexican is entirely different from, let's say, that of a Cuban-French first-generation multilingual immigrant, whose class may be determined by how the U.S. views their immigration status. Yet we are still categorized the same way in the U.S.
This was the first time I realized that the pressure on Latinx folx in America to assimilate was not just a widely embraced strategy for survival, it was also the result of government and political influences.
Digging around on social media, I found Instagram influencers who were posting about Mestizo and white Latinx identities in relation to the BLM movement. This opened my eyes to the colonialism that my white skin represented, regardless of my heritage.
I kept digging online. I read about the history of how the Mexican government and LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) worked to have the term "Mexican" removed from the 1930 Census so that Mexican Americans could identify as "white" on the forms for safety against segregation.
The piece from NPR's Gene Demby explained: "This history of claiming whiteness has been a strategy that Mexican Americans and other Latino groups have used to try to lobby for acceptance — claiming Americanness, claiming whiteness."
It all got me thinking about my grandmother, who was very much a woman of the "assimilation by any means necessary" generation of Mexican Americans. This influence led directly to my upbringing as a non-Spanish speaking, non-culturalized Mexican American.
I started to understand and come to terms with my white skin as representative of the actual genetic whiteness within my heritage due to colonialism, generational rape, and my ancestors using their proximity to whiteness for safety.
But I still didn't understand what my whiteness meant to me.
Eventually, I learned more about the concept of colorism, and about the unspoken power that my skin has, regardless of my heritage.
On Instagram, Adi Barreto made the power of skin color very clear for me in a video where this point — I'll paraphrase here — was made: A white Latinx person can be mistaken for a white non-Latinx person easily from far away or up close, but a Black or Brown person is not afforded that privilege. They're Black or Brown from far away and up close; they're never not Black or Brown.
What I got out of this was that white privilege is clearly visible by how long one's Latinx-ness can go undiscovered; the longer it takes for someone to see you're "not just white," the more privilege you have.
As someone who is easily white-passing, from any distance, this helped me separate colorism from racism for the first time.
This is where I am in my journey as of writing this piece.
I admit that I am embarrassed at where I had to start my journey, but I can't change my past, only my future.
I feel guilt that my experience as a white Mexican American is why I was asked to write this piece. I'm aware that priority should be given to the voices of those Black and Brown people who have experienced the fullest extent of American oppression, the voices that aren't heard enough.
While I still have so much work to do, I hope that recounting my story of how I began my introspection can empower some people reading this to start breaking out of the white-supremacy brainwashing that American culture imposes on all Americans.
It's intimidating to think of changing the entire way you've viewed yourself, or the "land of the free," but hopefully my breaking down how I went about it step-by-step makes it seem more doable. You have to start wherever you start, and whatever gets you started has value — hell, I started my introspection with Instagram influencers and memes!
As with leaving a cult, it's hard to deprogram someone once they're in. But it's worth the work, because each individual that leaves decreases the power of the cult.
The work I've done so far is not the end of it by far. I will continue to work to understand all the tendrils of systemic white supremacy in American culture and make them obsolete.
I continue to participate in BLM political actions and educate myself on white supremacy from Black and Brown perspectives. I follow local and national mutual-aid organizations on social media and watch documentaries and films by Black filmmakers about Black experiences in American history. I am learning for the first time about my Mexican and Native American heritage. (Thank you, John Leguizamo, for your comprehensive starter course.)
And I continue to dissect my personal white Mexican American identity.
I no longer want to use my whiteness to subvert the flawed existing power structures in entertainment. I want to use the privilege I'm afforded by white supremacy to build new spaces that uplift minorities in comedy, and provide equal representation.
But right now it's all still a work in progress. Whiteness and white supremacy continue to be a part of my life.
I lost my job due to the COVID pandemic and I need to pay bills. Anyone who's been struggling to receive unemployment this last year knows that Employment Development Department income is not dependable. As things get more desperate, this will require me compromising between my abolitionist morals and the reality of working for the billionaires who have the most jobs to offer. I'll yet again need to take what I can get.
And as a disabled person, my whiteness is a means of survival in the American healthcare system, something I can't easily discard.
So for now, I am doing the best I can. As one of my friends told me recently, "From your embarrassment, give yourself grace instead of shame and learn from the experience." Because you gotta start somewhere.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Sam Varela is a comedy producer of 12 years as Naked Comedy. She produces a number of online shows and podcasts while waiting for live entertainment to be COVID-safe again for all, including the immune-suppressed. She focuses on up-and-coming comedy voices from a diverse group of backgrounds and points of view.