White Privilege for A Brown Man

By Jose Mendez, Contributor

I am a Mexican-American named Jose, I work a low-wage job, and I come from a family of illegal immigrants. Picture me in your mind for a second. What do you see? Is it a short, dark-skinned man who speaks broken English? That description might fit someone you do know, but it does not fit me. I am White.

Sociologists have determined that race is a social construct and has no biological meaning, but race is an integral part of our society. Being a Mexican man in white skin has given me a unique and dark perspective on how one is viewed based solely on skin color.

Since I was young I have been called Powder, Casper, and güero (meaning ‘white-boy’ in Spanish). The nicknames were always said in jest but the teasing let me know I looked different from what I was ‘supposed’ to look like. I remember wishing I looked like all the other Hispanic kids but knowing what I know now, I am glad wishes aren’t granted by men in magic lamps.

Being ‘White’ has afforded me a privilege that my friends of color have not had: the benefit of the doubt. While taking my time at the convenience store I am never followed or harassed. I

have never thought twice about the polite smiles I receive. When getting pulled over by the police, I have never been assumed to be suspicious. And I have never felt I had to put on a persona when going in for an interview or speaking to a superior.

The same cannot be said for my Black and Hispanic friends.

They are constantly offered ‘help’ when shopping. They notice the courteous smiles I receive when passing someone and it is rare this happens to them. And although my friends and I speak the same dialect, I have never felt the need to change it. My friends tell me about the ‘White voice’ they use in professional settings.  

But sometimes this treatment is more extreme.

One friend was admiring window tint and it became a police stop for ‘staring down the officer.’ Another friend was taken into custody for a miniscule amount of marijuana while I was caught red-handed with a much more sizable quantity and let off with a warning, but only after some jokes were shared. Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” mentions a study showing that minorities accounted for 80 percent of vehicles searched even though they only accounted for 21 percent of drivers.  

These differences in treatment and perception create different realities based solely on skin color.

When I ask my friends about the differential treatment, they do not seem phased, while I would be livid. They understand the differences in how people are seen and while it angers them, they also know that this is just how the world works. We all recognize skin color and an instant impression about a person is made in our minds.

The Implicit Association Test (IAT) shows us  these snap judgements in startling fashion. Results from taking a race-based IAT prove that associating Black faces with positive words (e.g. wonderful, glorious) takes longer than associating Black faces with negative words (e.g. hurt, evil).  This conditioning is ingrained in all of us.

Most people will describe a criminal as Black, due to skewed media coverage, and a CEO as White (a study by Richard Zweigenhaft on corporate diversity showed 74 percent of CEOs were White in 2013), and while this is embarrassing, it is also true. Most would agree we would never discriminate against anybody, but we cannot control our subconscious.

These biases have real world implications and make the difference between a warning from a police officer and a criminal record. These are dark truths we all live and it is time to shine a light into the shadows.

Illustration by Mary Jane DeCarlo