Affirmative: The Privilege Of Defining Your Own Identity

When I applied to colleges (and when I still apply to jobs, for that matter), I listed myself as Hispanic on all my applications underneath the “ethnicity” tab. This is, of course, true. My father was born and raised in Spain, and his heritage was very much a part of my life growing up. He spoke Spanish at home with us (though far from exclusively, to be sure), we ate Spanish food, and we celebrated certain holidays, such as New Years Eve, with Spanish traditions. Even then, and more so now, I’m hispanic in more than just name, and I identify powerfully with the culture, so labelling myself as such was an obvious choice when it came to applying to schools. But I can’t deny that I also did so because I perceived that, in the cutthroat world of college admissions (and now job applications), being hispanic conferred some advantage, even if it was just in making me slightly more notable than the average white kid. I have absolutely no idea if this actually ended up helping me, but I understood that, at the very least, it certainly couldn’t hurt.

More importantly for the purposes of this blog post, thought, it couldn’t hurt me in any other aspects of my life, either. Despite my hispanic heritage and my connection to Spanish culture (or because of them, given that Spain is a Western European nation through-and-through), I’m also very, very white. As such, I’m afforded a level of privilege that many other people with Hispanic heritage simply are not. I’ve never been stopped and asked to justify my presence in this country, for example, as a great many other American citizens are asked every day. I never have to worry if anyone might feel threatened when I lapse into speaking Spanish to myself, or worried that I might come across as “too hispanic” in a meeting. In spaces where it’s more advantageous or comfortable to appear simply white (which means most of them), that’s how I appear. I can present my hispanic identity when and where I choose to, and the same forces that allow me to do so also afford me the assurance that I’ll always be safe when I do so, because of the other half of my ethnic identity.

I have, in other words, an incredible privilege of a kind I feel like we never truly talk about: the privilege to define my own identity. I can wear my hispanic identity like any article of clothing: presented to the world when I want it to be or when its beneficial. I have the privilege, in other words, of choosing whether to be Hispanic or white at my whim, depending on which identity is better for me at the time. I get to tell the world what I am. The vast majority of people, those whose identities are both less privileged and less subtle than my own, don’t have this privilege, are told by the world what they are instead of the other way around. In fact, the most fundamental privilege of all might be this one, the one that we talk about almost least of all: the privilege of self-determination.

What, then, does this mean, both for me and for others? How do we solve this problem? Should I stop calling myself hispanic when job applications ask after my ethnicity? The answer to that question, I believe, is no. That I have hispanic heritage becomes no less true simply because I am also white, and that heritage has genuinely made some of the work I’ve done over the past few years far more powerful and resonant. Nor would me refusing to declare myself as such solve the problem I’ve discussed above. Honestly, this is going to be one of the bleaker concluding paragraphs I’ve written, because there is no magic bullet that can solve an issue of this magnitude. This problem is at once the end result of privilege and the privilege that underlies them all, and to argue that there’s some kind of catch-all solution that can even make meaningful progress against it would be naive and disingenuous. This conglomeration of systems is simply far too vast to tackle directly. It can, however, be combatted indirectly, by working to combat every aspect of privilege that folds into it, that both creates and is created by it. It’s not something any one person can do on their own, or any one generation or group either. But if we all do it hard enough, for long enough, perhaps one day the privilege to define oneself won’t only belong to people who look like me.

With excitement and optimism,