Gender & Identity Life

Passing as white in a family of color means learning to use my privilege

From doctors to cashiers, anytime I would go somewhere with a member of my family, people would refer to me for the important questions. Even more, they would come to me for the small-talk. They would treat me like another human being. My brilliant and capable grandmother could be standing directly next to them, and never would their attention falter, even when the topic wasn’t about me. Growing up meant slowly realizing exactly why that was: privilege.

I pass for white easily. Next to the women of my family, there is no doubt that the matrilineal line comes to me. I have my mother’s empathy, my grandmother’s passion. Placed side-by-side, you could point out all of our shared features from nose to cheekbones without question. I’m my mother’s daughter. I just happen to be a fairly pale version.

Growing up, I, of course, made this about myself. I felt disconnected like I stood out. But as I got older, the truth became more and more evident. People wanted to assume that I was smarter or more capable than my family members. Even at twelve-years-old in the pharmacy, employees would ask me important questions that should have been directed at my grandmother. After all, she was the one they were meant to be helping. She was the adult. But even a child was a more comfortable option to speak to than a brown woman with an accent. Understanding the behavior behind this was a huge turning point for me.

It was clear that when placed in a room full of white people, my presence would not deter them from saying the horrible things that they truly felt. Racism finds a comfortable home when it sees no threat. I was often left confused and angry during these kinds of interactions. But my feelings on it could never touch those of my family members. The more time that passed, the more I realized how much my silence allowed this ideology to fester.

I had been complicit in the moments that I was too anxious to speak up. Be it uncomfortable or not, I had to learn to speak up when necessary. I had to learn to use my privilege. It became obvious that in my silence, whether intentional or not, I was condoning acts of hate against those I loved most. This was unacceptable.

Educating myself was the first step. My family didn’t have the privilege of biting their tongues and pretending it didn’t bother them. Who they are was worn without question for all eyes to see. How could I pretend that it wasn’t easier for me? I could tune out, walk away, remove myself from the situation. I could do this because no one thought twice. I had the privilege of sliding through the situation unnoticed. But had it been another member of my family, I know that they would not have experienced that kind of ease.

I am still faced with situations like these. I still see the struggle of those I love and know that I will never fully understand it. What I do know, however, is that I have no intention of backing into the shadows and allowing myself to be an observer. How others choose to deal with hate when they are faced with it is personal and up to them. But for me, I simply want to do better, and I will.

By Shannon Aplin

Shannon Aplin is an activist and an artist with a love for travel and pop culture. She holds a B.A. in Biological Anthropology and loves nothing more than listening to her abuela tell old stories. When she isn’t writing, you can find her composing music, daydreaming, and fighting the stigma against mental illness.