Atop a plump inflatable ring, I bobbed along the water park’s lazy river, fingertips skimming the artificially turquoise water, eyes prickling from the omnipresent chlorine.
We were 16 and thicker than thieves, never mind that the last time we’d seen each other was when we were chubby-faced preteens. I was expecting things to be awkward between us when I came to visit my home in Ukraine after several years, but our friendship turned out to be immune to time.
We shared the giant floating ring at the water park, squished into it side by side. I started as she flailed her limbs in an attempt to steer us in the opposite direction.
“Chto takoe?” I asked (“What’s wrong?”).
“Let’s go the other way. I’d rather not go near them,” she said. The offending “them” was a small group of olive-skinned, black-haired young men. Discomfort bloomed in the pit of my stomach; my skin suddenly felt too tight.
“But why?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I just feel uncomfortable.”
I decided not to press further and let my feet go limp in the water, spine rigid with things left unsaid as she steered us away. Along with biting indignation, hurt and confusion, I also felt relief. Relief at the knowledge that the fear and revulsion that simmered behind her gaze when she looked at “them” would never be directed at me.
In a homogeneously white country such as Ukraine, Brown people are a rare sight and a subject of suspicion. As a child, I was told to “stay away from them, they’re gypsies, they’ll pickpocket you,” despite the fact that I looked just like them: same tan skin, same inky features, same bushy black eyebrows. But, as far as my friends and family were concerned, I was one of their kind.
As a biracial person who was born into and raised by a white family and community, I had the privilege of being exempt from the alienation, hatred and distrust expressed toward other Brown people.
Now, 10 years later and living in Berkeley, little has changed. Over the summer, my mom and sister drove up from Southern California to visit me here. During a conversation with my mom, she told me about catching a person rummaging through the storage boxes in her driveway at night.
“You know what was surprising? It wasn’t how I pictured a thief would look. It was a white guy in nice sports clothes! He definitely didn’t look homeless or anything,” she said.
“Why is it surprising that he was white?”
“Well, because these kinds of people usually aren’t.”
That feeling again of my skin being too tight; hot, prickly indignation swelling in my chest.
“I’m a person of color, too. Does that mean I look like a criminal?”
“No, that’s not what I was saying at all! This wasn’t even about you!”
She didn’t get why I took it so personally.
Coming from a homogeneously white society where nonwhite people are seen as shady, untrustworthy and just plain inferior, she didn’t understand why I would actively choose to align myself with this group of people rather than consider myself purely white and Ukrainian, due to my all-white upbringing. I know you, I raised you, you’re one of us. She was giving me an out, and I wasn’t taking it.
As a child immersed in a blatantly racist community, I used to gladly take the out. I sat quietly and said nothing to challenge my family and friends’ racist statements, relieved that they weren’t aimed at me. This is privilege, and I used to hastily accept this privilege that was handed to me without stopping to recognize or question it, lest it be yanked away.
Being a BIPOC who had a traditionally white upbringing, I come from an odd position: I am both racially privileged and not privileged. As a kid, going into public places with a white parent was a privilege. Being a white woman meant that people took my mom seriously and were respectful to her. Because I was always with her, I had a measure of protection, a measure of acceptance from the white public.
Upon arriving in the United States, my family sent me to a school in an upper-middle-class white neighborhood. Most of my friends were white. As a result of growing up in this environment, I’m familiar and didn’t need to learn how to code switch — a privilege that many other BIPOC don’t have. It was privilege through affiliation, which is different from white privilege but is privilege nonetheless.
After returning from the water park, my friend and I vegetated on her sofa, talking as we waited for our hair to dry. Somehow, the topic of our meandering conversation landed on fathers — both of ours had been absent from our lives.
“Hey, where was yours from?” she asked.
This question surprised me. After 16 years of knowing each other down to the tiniest detail and most intimate secret, she wasn’t completely sure what the other half of my identity was.
“Afghanistan. All this time, and you didn’t know?” I replied.
“I mean … obviously I knew that you were half Ukrainian and half … something else.”
“But … weren’t you ever curious?
“Not really. I knew that you were from here, that you were one of us, and the rest didn’t really matter.”
I could tell she meant this as a compliment, as if to say I don’t care that you’re different.
Being treated by my white family and friends as if I’m one of them is a double-edged sword. In part, it is erasure. And yet in part, it grants me acceptance into their community — a privilege that many BIPOC don’t have access to.
Recognizing this privilege doesn’t negate or undermine the fact that BIPOC who are biracial or come from a white background still face systemic oppression, racism and alienation. Not all BIPOC are equally discriminated against or oppressed; oppression is not one-size-fits-all. In our struggle against white privilege, it is essential that we first become aware of and dismantle our own privileges.
Arina Stadnyk writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected]