White privilege shows up in the weirdest places.
Very long story distilled radically: My dad retired to Mexico and remarried (briefly) several years ago, and I have a half-sister who is 15. Her mother is Mexican, and my hermanita (little sister) grew up and still lives in central Mexico with her older sisters. They are beautiful, strong, brilliant women, all of them. (Runs in the family.. ha! I digress...)
I hadn't taken the opportunity to visit in person for a zillion and one (mostly lazy) reasons. We've managed to form relationships mostly over the internet, the girls and I, with a strong reliance on Google Translate, because while they've learned (or are learning) English in school, they feel weird and uncomfortable trying to speak it, and most of my Spanish was learned on Sesame Street decades ago, even though my dad is fluent in a dozen languages, including this one. It's been an OK compromise. We share recipes, pictures of babies, gossip about relatives, worries about global events... you know. Normal family stuff.
Last year my dad had a significant health scare and it bumped up the urgency of an in-person visit - we needed to get some systems in place to both better deal with his health issues and get his paperwork squared away for the inevitable, whenever it happens. And despite my sisters being amazing humans, they are not equipped to navigate the VA system, especially in the midst of an emotional crisis. So we dusted off our passports, packed a suitcase, and spent a week in Mexico doing Family Stuff.
One of the major highlights was actually meeting my sisters in person. When they walked in the door, the oldest sister on that side stopped dead in her tracks - the resemblance between the youngest and me, age difference aside, is pretty striking, actually. It took me by surprise, too. (In my head she's been that cute three year old for pretty much her whole life.. lol). We even wear the same shape and colour of eyeglass frames! (Good taste runs in the family, too!)
My baby sister was tickled because she's taller than me (this is no real win, y'all... My kids were taller than me by the time they were 12!). We talked about school (hers AND mine - she loves math and wants to be a psychologist like our dad), her plans for university and career interests, what we like to do when we're not all on lockdown... and then she paused, and she looked at me, and then at our other sister, and she smiled very brightly, and commented that her skin was lighter, almost like mine, and made sure I noticed she has green eyes like me, too!
I guess I looked perplexed because a very interesting (and very lively) conversation ensued. Duolingo had not prepared me for this conversation, and I can only thumb through the dictionary so fast! My dad was laughing watching the obvious confusion but he started translating (bless his soul - my brain would have been jelly!) in both directions as we launched into this. Turns out being "light-skinned" is a major bonus because there is a very strong bias against the indigenous people of Mexico, much like there has been in America.
My dad talked about how even when she a very small baby, people they'd pass on the street would pause to touch her auburn hair or brush her fair-skinned cheek and comment that she was "good luck" - just because of her colouring. Her older sister is much darker-skinned with long, jet-black hair, and she nodded, admitting she used to be jealous, but now she sees it as a gift from God and a promise of greater opportunities. Darker skin is seen as a sign of being lower class, or even intellectually less capable. So my youngest sister benefits from the unconscious (and often conscious) bias that being fairer-complected indicates superior genes.
Now, she's my sister - of course, she has superior genes (again.. HA! That's sarcasm if it's not abundantly clear!) but it really made me pause and think how insidious this Euro-centric paradigm is. So, out of a deep curiosity (and an uncomfortable feeling that this wasn't something I could just ignore)I brought it up with another friend of my dad's while we were there, and learned that yes, there is a strong favoritism for seeming "White", AND, beautifully, there's also a growing movement to reclaim, preserve, and elevate the indigenous heritage in their area. We talked a little about the incredible engineering of the pre-Spanish people who lived there, and other scientific knowledge and social structures that were in place before European colonialism (and germs) stomped all over the local cultures. We've continued that conversation, and I'm glad the topic came up because it's led to some really great opportunities for learning and sharing. And yet...
For me, it's moments like this that drive soul-deep the awareness that we have a long road ahead of us to truly reach Societal Awareness and Enlightenment - and yes, I appreciate the privilege inherent in that very statement. I also understand the primitive programming that kept us alive for millennia, where we see "different" as synonymous with "dangerous". But seriously, it's long (long long long long) past time for us as a species to "level up". Different can be dangerous, but we can no longer rely on the ancient ritual demarcations of skin colour or regional affiliation or religion as short-cuts. If we are going to maximize the amazing opportunities of living in a truly global culture, we have to get to a place where we celebrate the kaleidoscope of human experience, human existence, of simply being human.
I look forward to more interesting conversations with my sisters, and influencing the narrative they're exposed to on a regular basis. My dad said that my sisters have already started asking some very different kinds of questions - another seed is planted. Let's see how it grows. ♥