My Grandmother, the one I actually adore and like, is from Ecuador originally. She is a gorgeous woman, the sort of woman who at 80 still has men flirt with her & try to get her attention. She enjoys it now, I think, but she did not enjoy that attention back when she was a recent immigrant to the United States from Quito, Ecuador, in the early 60s. She fled a terrible relationship and went to the United States so that her children could have a better future away from the alcoholic, abusive male chauvinists who ran her family and her country. She struggled being a young hispanic woman in the early 60’s era Chicago Suburbs. She had to leave most of her children, my aunts and uncles, behind out of necessity, leaving them back in the country she loved but also had to flee. She worked any job she could so she could save up enough money to bring her kids over. All the while she had to fight off, literally, the lecherous advances of everyone from her managers, her co-workers, her neighbors and even her landlord. A story she frequently told us as (probably far too young) children was about whenever the rent came due her fat ugly white landlord would come and try and break down her door so that he could rape her. She laughed about it as though if it were a plot from a favorite movie, but I am sure that laughter was covering up a lot of pain and rage. She never showed that side of herself to me or my siblings or cousins though: she was always a happy, smiling, generous, boisterous and proud Latino woman who loved her grandchildren and obviously loved the life she had created for herself and her family.
She married my Grandfather, the son of a German speaking Polish immigrant, and had two more children, my father and my (full) uncle (I consider all my Ecuadorian born relations fully my relatives as well, even though technically they are “half” uncles, aunts, and cousins). My Dad was a small fellow growing up, someone who today would be the sort of adorable mixed race child who would grace a Cheerio’s commercial or star in a PBS children’s shows, but back in late 60’s-early 70’s DuPage County, looking like he did didn’t do him any favors. My Grandmother would dress my dad in small business type suits and sent him off to school with a briefcase and polished shoes. My grandmother meant well, she really did, but a little brown boy in tiny business attire made a great target for the richer, bigger, and meaner white bullies who would torment him, beat him, and steal his money every day on his way to school. My dad laughs about it now, but I am sure that experience was something akin to a living Hell. As he grew older, he began to look less “brown” and he grew into himself more, becoming a high school wrestler, started to write, and generally began embracing his strengths. Today you would have a hard time guess he was Hispanic at all, except for his ease at attaining a tan, and I know that has probably helped him in the intense and superficial sales world he has made his living in throughout his life. He can now “pass” and is more or less fully embraced by the white society that used to shun, humiliate, and torture him for the audacity of his brownness. My dad is a very open-minded fellow, very kind and also probably the least prejudiced person I have ever met. He is patient and kind with everyone, though he has told me that some of his white co-workers over the years have tried to bring him into their little “white man” club, mistaking him for someone who wants to listen to their disgusting bigoted opinions about their black or Mexican co-workers. Appearing white and being male seems to be a green light for bigots to try and rope you into their foul prejudiced worldview.
When I was born I was clearly different. I didn’t really like being around people that much, outside of my family, and I did not like to go outside of my house or yard to do things with other kids. I was quiet in public and polite to point of being strange. I liked nothing more than being in my room, reading my books, playing with my sisters with their barbies and my action figures and G.I Joe’s, coming up with ever more elaborate stories that made no sense to anyone but me. It is clear now that I was an autistic child, and now I am an autistic adult (I was not diagnosed until I was 21…mainly because I was homeschooled but also because my mom is autistic as well and we really thought I just took after her!). At the same time, I am a white, cisgender male born into the middle of the middle class. Privilege was something I was born with and that benefits me in ways small and large that I will never completely understand. I look totally white. You would never guess I have a grandmother whose first language was Spanish and who looks like Inca royalty. With my red beard, dark blond hair, green eyes and printer paper pale skin you would guess I was full blooded Nordic (I am 1/8th Swedish by the way). The worst teasing I ever got was having some brats throw pebbles at me at the play ground one time because I was a “nerd” who actually liked playing with my sisters in public. Not really a story of hardship and adversity, was my childhood.
That being said, I grew up thinking that EVERYONE had a grandmother who was brown and spoke Spanish fluently. I thought EVERYONE had Uncles and Aunties with olive skin and thick black hair. It was quite a shock to me to realize that this was not at all the case, especially not for little boys and eventually young men who looked like me. As soon as I grew old enough to have a desire to go out and do somethings in the public world, I began to realize how much a privilege my looks really were. Nothing was ever really hard for me, not getting part time jobs (even though I was and still am a terrible employee) nor getting into the school I wanted to get into. I have never been pulled over, I have never been stopped by a cop, I have never been condescended to because of my appearance, I have never been profiled in a bookstore or a shopping mall because I look like “the sort” who would shoplift. In other words, I am as much a part of the status quo as the brick post office or the VFW building: I am “normal”, I am what an American is “supposed” to look like. Being Autistic it took me longer than would otherwise be the case to realize that I was in fact “normal”: In my own mind I am such a strange, esoteric, out of place person who does not understand people. The idea that I did NOT stand out was alien to me, but I started to realize this fact as I got out into the wider social universe. White people, men especially, would assume I was “one of them” and would crack their cruel jokes about “those people” and women. Not having any sort of social filter, my discomfort and displeasure would be apparent on my face and would usually be enough to drive these sorts of people away. I am the sort of person who will tell a stranger or someone I barely know that they are “wrong” to their face. This tends to upset, or at least unnerve, a lot of people, white men especially.
I always fit in better with people who did not look like me: the Pakistani-American kids I worked with at the college library embraced me because I didn’t crack cheap terrorist jokes or make distasteful comments about Muslim women. The foreign born and foreign exchange students liked me because I listened instead of talking, and I was genuinely interested in how they viewed the world (I love geography, and I love cultural history of all sorts). I made friend with women easily because I didn’t try to get in their pants and I didn’t condescend to them. I grew up with 3 strong and independent sisters and a very feminist mother, so even IF I had had a misogynist inclination, it would have been figuratively “beaten” out of me at a young age. As it was, I never saw women as the different species that most men seem to see them as. I think my autism has something to do with my lack of prejudice: I tend to see everyone as a sort of blank face that I slowly fill in as I get to know their patterns and their quirks.
That is not to say I am some sort of perfect liberal paragon. The insidious part of privilege is that you are not SUPPOSED to be aware of it when you have it, and combined with my autistic inability to read social situations well I have certainly made some faux pas and hurt feelings in ways I will never be aware of. That knowledge depresses me (I have clinical depression so this is not altogether strange for me) and it worries me constantly; it is one of the reasons I avoid contact with many people. I hate the idea that I could inadvertently hurt or marginalize another person. I hate my privilege even while I benefit from it every day. My lizard brain, the part that seeks to avoid stress and pain, of course enjoys the fact that I can go through life as an unmolested, benignly invisible person if I so choose, but the moral me, the human me, despises that privilege and wishes that it would be wiped from the face of the Earth forever.
Today I am a Anarcho-Socialist writer/artist/editor in the working class who is generally happy and comfortable who does everything he can to make sure he does not make others feel like my dad and my grandmother felt in their respective youths. I write and I create, but what I try to do most of all is to make sure that I leave people feeling better for having met me. There is no greater gift you can give to the world than to make sure that you do not make life more difficult for others. I suppose there is more I could do, more I could say, but I am still only 28 and I have a long way to go before I fully understand myself, my world, and the privilege I inherited, like a stolen heirloom, and still use, whether I like it or not.