Growing up in Mexico, I didn’t have the language to address the inequities I saw around me. I realized how individuals were treated differently based on their skin color. The majority of students who attended my private school had light skin. Their families had enough wealth to live in the affluent parts of my city. Meanwhile, the majority of those who went to public school had dark skin and lived on the outskirts of my town. Those who went to public school were not as fortunate as my white friends, who had enough resources to get a proper education.
I was finally able to name those inequalities when I came to UC Berkeley and accidentally took my first ethnic studies class.
Planning for my first semester at UC Berkeley, I didn’t know which classes to take. I was about to transfer to my dream school, but having to work two part-time jobs while in community college kept me too busy, and I did not have time to plan my classes until the last minute. I had all the classes I thought I needed to fulfill my history major requirements — I just needed one 3-unit class to get to the credit minimum requirement. I was overwhelmed by the abundance of classes offered, so I picked the ones that looked interesting from the title — one of these was an introduction to ethnic studies course.
Once caught by the compelling title, I was expecting to learn about other people’s cultures; their different food, music, traditions and religions. Surprisingly, a few weeks into the class, I realized this wasn’t the case — I was going to learn to unpack white supremacy.
Those in Mexico who believed that racism was real were often made fun of. I would hear people say, “Racism is a thing of the past, we now live in a ‘racial democracy.’ ”
I was forced to believe that racism was nonexistent. Society convinced me that the inequalities I saw around me were not the result of racism, but mere coincidences. Light-skinned people were the ones who were the most successful, while dark- and brown-skinned people were usually the most disenfranchised because that was just the way it was. No one could explain those disparities and neither could I. And so, I left the issue alone.
But when I came to UC Berkeley and took the ethnic studies class, I realized the inequalities I saw all my life were the result of blatant racism. It was not absurd to think that light-skinned people had a better shot in life just because of the color of their skin. I was finally able to name the injustices I saw all around me while living in Mexico.
The ethnic studies class I took made me realized that even though I identified as a person of color, my life was influenced by many representations of white supremacy, two of the most significant ones being colorism and heteronormativity.
I saw colorism growing up, even though I could not name it. My unjustified attraction to light-skinned people, my desire to lighten my own skin and even my admiration for European intellectuals now had an explanation. I had grown up believing that the lighter the color of one’s skin, the better. I unconsciously believed that the more European someone was, the better.
Additionally, ethnic studies made me realized that white supremacy is not only reflected through colorism but also through heteronormativity. These expectations of sexuality were an imposition by settler colonialists. I realized that my parent’s expectations of me being heterosexual and feminine could be traced back to the heteronormativity imposed by white settlers. All my life, I had been colonized.
Ethnic studies also made me aware of something I did not expect — it made me mindful of my own privilege. How could I identify as a person of color when I had the privilege of a white person in Mexico? How could I continue to decolonize myself when I was taking advantage of my own white privilege here in Berkeley?
All my life I identified myself as mestizo, meaning mixed race, but I was never fully conscious of what that word meant. Being mestizo was supposed to be a “celebration” of the mix of indigenous peoples and European roots. But ethnic studies made me realize that by identifying as mestiza, I was getting the privilege of a white person while at the same time disenfranchising indigenous peoples. I was calling myself mestizo and perpetuating a national identity that rendered indigenous peoples invisible.
Although I continue to struggle with these questions, one thing is certain: I will no longer allow white supremacy to control my life and will continue to be a critic of its different manifestations. I will continue to decolonize myself by changing old attitudes and habits. Ultimately, ethnic studies fundamentally changed the way I view the world. It empowered me by showing me how I was being oppressed and how I was oppressing others.
Lupita Lua writes the Friday blog on unlearning white supremacy and decolonizing aspects of her life. Contact her at [email protected].