“Well, you’re Hispanic. That’s how you got in. You know that, right?”
…twelve words that destroyed me that fall day freshman year. I had just started college at the University of Florida and I was attending my first class in the honors program. I’d qualified without a problem, or so I thought. Now, a fellow student was implying that the standards were lower for me. That it was only because I was Latina that I’d been accepted.
I’d never ever been confronted with this statement. As a child, I breezed through school with mostly A’s. I was part of the gifted program starting in first grade, and took multiple Advanced Placement classes in high school. I say this only because the entire time, I thought I earned everything that came my way. I was raised in Miami and attended schools that were mostly Hispanic and African-American, so I had no reason to suspect that my accomplishments were the result of anything but hard work.
Until that day.
I was so hurt and surprised, my eyes immediately watered and I got a lump in my throat. I was very close to crying. Was it true? Was I only admitted because of my ethnic background? I spent the rest of the day in a haze. I felt a little broken.
Was it true? Was I only admitted because of my ethnic background? I spent the rest of the day in a haze. I felt a little broken.
It wasn’t until I visited my college adviser’s office that I got some relief. I burst into tears and told him what had happened in class. He shook his head, pulled my file and showed me my scores. I had exceeded the requirements—the requirements all students had to meet for acceptance in the honors program.
Still, the presumption on the part of my classmate plagued me. My college adviser knew—and I knew—that I had every right to be there. But this assumption existed that I needed special help because I happened to be Latina, because I wasn’t white.
That was 20 years ago. And nothing’s changed. There are still people who see the color of someone’s skin or hear their last name and make assumptions, dangerous assumptions: that we are uneducated, that we must be criminals or gang members, that we got in to fill a quota, that we must have come here illegally, that we should go back to our countries, on and on it goes.
I had it easy. I was 18 years old the first time I was blatantly discriminated against. I can’t imagine how it is for little children of color, immigrant children, who face immediate and devastating discrimination. What does it do to a young developing mind to be told again and again: you’re not good enough. What does it do to a young precious heart to feel unwelcome, feared, just because of how you look, what you’re wearing or where you’re from? What irreparable damage is done? What dreams are destroyed? What limits are established? What leaders are lost?
This is a pernicious epidemic, a social cancer, that produces another tragedy or controversy on a regular basis. And it just happened again.
Say her name: Sandra Bland.
She was an African-American woman who’d just moved to Texas for a new job, failed to put on her turn signal, and ended up dead in police custody three days later. Suicide, they say. I’m sickened.
What does it do to a young precious heart to feel unwelcome, feared, just because of how you look, what you’re wearing or where you’re from? What irreparable damage is done?
At the same time, Donald Trump, a Republican presidential candidate, loudly and proudly announces he believes that most people of color are criminals and lawbreakers. He repeatedly states one of the most ignorant of beliefs: that poor Latinos are “taking” America. It’s working. His poll numbers are on the rise.
It’s all part of the same problem: discrimination based on skin color and ethnic background. That’s what it is. You cannot tell me any different. I know this because of that college classmate. All she knew of me from our three-minute conversation was that I was Latina and from Miami. And therefore did not belong in that honors class.
I’d love to say that I’ve been able to shrug off her ridiculous comments but I never have. As a reporter in local markets and a national correspondent, I still encountered comments like that. “Wow, you’re Hispanic? You’re really doing well for yourself!” What the hell does that mean? Am I an outlier? So I suppose my accomplished parents, my brothers and sisters are also outliers, oh and my close friends and colleagues of color. Your skin color, your country of origin, your ethnicity have nothing to do with your personhood. Your intellect. Your kindness. Your soul.
WE HAVE TO DO BETTER. We have to stop making so many damned assumptions and recognize that even the most seemingly harmless assumption can lead to very dangerous situations. I’m sure Sandra Bland did not expect to die that day in Texas. Neither did Trayvon Martin. Neither did Walter Scott. Three of innumerable lives lost. Three of innumerable grieving families. Must there be more?
This is a pernicious epidemic, a social cancer, that produces another tragedy or controversy on a regular basis. And it just happened again. Say her name: Sandra Bland.
As much as Trump is a joke, I find it unsettling that his rallies are beginning to attract crowds that did not have to be paid. That means there are people out there who agree with him. That’s terrifying. These are people that see individuals of color as having less value, less worth. Less, less, less. I thought we collectively decided it was immoral and unconstitutional to deem someone 3/5 of a person back in 1865.
As the daughter of Chilean immigrants, this is my country just as much as anyone’s. I am Sandra. I am Trayvon. I am Walter. I am you. And you are me. The sooner we see ourselves in each other, the sooner there won’t be another Sandra Bland. Only then will there not be a chance in hell that we put a bigot in the White House.
Let’s hope that day is today.