Privilege by Proxy

A newspaper article was published last week that neatly summarizes the continuing structural discrimination against brown and black people. This made me think about my own early life situation and how it might have been different if I hadn’t been adopted into a white family. For more than a century, both explicit and implicit racism has determined where racial and ethnic minorities may reside in this country. Here’s a quote from the article, though I recommend reading it in its entirety (linked below):

“On the surface, the guidelines were race-neutral, but in practice they were anything but that. Black residents were far less likely to be able to afford single-family homes in the area, meaning they were less likely to be able to move to West Hartford at all. The town, like most other Hartford suburbs, remained essentially all white.

The 1930s brought another form of housing discrimination: redlining. In hundreds of cities across the nation, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation assessed the ostensible “security” of various neighborhoods, offering color-coded recommendations on which areas were safe for banks to lend in. The most “desirable” neighborhoods were shaded green, while less-appealing areas were labeled blue, yellow or, worst of all, red.”

When my white adoptive family moved from the near NYC city suburbs in northern New Jersey to the more remote small town in which I was raised in 1970, they faced no race-based housing discrimination; a barrier my original family would have almost certainly have been affected by. This is an example of how I benefited from “white privilege” by proxy. The expansive and growing far suburbs removed many undesirable outcomes of crowded living in substandard housing while offering opportunities for advancement through healthier homes and living conditions, more equipped schools and increased ability to build wealth through home value.

Even as I continue to be cussed at and told to “go back where I belong” through car windows, I have had to learn to incorporate such privilege into my experience of being a ‘white person’ in a brown body. I had to make decisions about what types of societal compensation I should legitimately be afforded through such programs as affirmative action, for example. When I entered college, I decided that my apparent “race” did nothing to advance me in society and everything to hold me back. So, I made the difficult decision to accept my first of several minority scholarships and fellowships to pursue my education. I would not have been able to attain the PhD that I eventually earned without these programs and I am still saddle by student loan debt regardless.

I now live in a mostly white conservative suburb in New England. (No doubt, my adoptive parents' advancement enabled my own.) It wasn’t an ideal choice for us, but our needs were narrow when we moved here and our ability to relocate now is limited. This article reminded me of where I came from and how I got here. And, it reminded me of an old episode of All in the Family, which I watched as a boy, that interrogated the practice of “blockbusting,” another extra-legal tactic to segregate whites from minorities ( I understood the problem as a boy and I refuse to contribute to it today.

There are many areas of life in which I walk between the so-called “races.” I usually end up on the dispriviledged side in these encounters, despite my white upbringing. Strangers most often perform a sort of pedestrian physiognomy upon meeting me. I’m usually first understood as a representation of Spanish stereotypes (Latinx people here are generally referred to as “Spanish” and by this they historically meant mean Puerto Rican but increasingly this includes Mexican and Central American), and assumed to have limited English, little education, and criminal tendencies. Many seemed challenged to incorporate a more realistic conception of their brown neighbors. I don’t feel the obligation to correct them each time. But, it’s funny to see their expressions change when we speak with one another and their expectations are defied. This article, like other documentation of racist tactics forces me to continually examine my place between the so-called “races.” Race is a social construction and racist practices like housing discrimination must be socially dismantled. Separation is not the natural order of things. Housing segregation remains a problem today, and I can see this from both sides of the equation.

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Peace to you my friends,


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