The Lessons of College And Color At Any PWI

This is a story. 

My sophomore year of college, a white classmate asked if I could help her with her Spanish homework. Her assignment was to ask a fluent Spanish speaker to judge whether the words para or por were appropriate for a pair of sentences. I helped and didn’t think about it again until a friend mentioned that a handful of white people had said I helped them too. It caught me off guard. Did the girl give my name out? Were there no fluent Spanish speakers in their social circle to ask?  I still wonder...

My dad is Irish-Argentinian and my mom is brown and from Chile. Growing up I was used to being the lightest person around. Due to internalized notions of what a Latina “should be,” I felt like a bad one because I spoke broken Spanish and had visited neither of my parents’ home countries. At the same time, I grew up in a working-class LA neighborhood with a large, close-knit Chilean family. We had parties at my grandma’s house and ate empanadas while Univision blared in the background. This was my childhood.

During my time at Bucknell University, a predominately white institution (PWI), I learned that I can blend in with the white majority if I want to. When I won a scholarship to go to a “top-tier” school and packed my bags for Pennsylvania, I wasn’t prepared for what I would experience. I was meeting wealthy white people that thought my ethnicity made me interesting or “exotic” and people of color who thought I was whitewashed because of my appearance.  I felt stuck in between.

This is made possible by my light skin and European features. My identities as cisgender, queer, and femme also inform my lived experience. I am privileged. I can be a straight, white woman whenever, wherever. Police perceive me as innocent. I can turn on a TV and see people who look like me. My feminine presentation makes no one uncomfortable. White Latinx have higher employment rates, higher incomes, and lower incarceration rates than darker-skinned Latinxs. This is privilege.

I am a cisgender femme bisexual Latina and my superpower is invisibility. It has made my life easier, but I am also constantly misidentified and prone to experiencing microagressions. Part of having light skin is that white people feel "safe" to say things they wouldn’t say around darker skinned folks--even if they thought or knew I was Latinx--almost as if my proximity to whiteness means l’ll side with them, or as if my presence is the approval they need. These fun facts became very clear in college...

The blonde girl threw up her hands and clapped them together, forming a pointy hood above her head.
“We are the sisters of Kappa Kappa Kappa, our colors are ivory and white.”
We were all in a room in our historically white sorority’s suite, about to leave for a party. It was the second or third time I’d hung out with those girls since I had come back from my semester abroad, and my first time meeting the new pledges.
I scanned the room hoping find someone who thought this was messed up too. I was the only person of color in the room and didn’t want to single myself out (thanks social anxiety!) so I kept my thoughts to myself.  Later that semester I disaffiliated.

My experience at a PWI was an education on the nuances of race and ethnicity, and on the things white people say when they don’t think POC are in the room. Through being white-passing I have learned that my Latinx and queer identity is mine to claim, but the fact that I have the option not to is a privilege. Even with the ups-and-downs that college brought, however, I can’t say I wish things had gone differently. I am an upwardly mobile woman of color, and with that I feel the responsibility to pay it forward while challenging stereotypical ideas of how I should look, sound, or act. It was at Bucknell that I learned to navigate and assert the complexities of who I am, and where I learned to love the space in between.