Our privilege goes beyond our skin color

This piece was contributed by Marcial Diaz ’13

I am a student from Guatemala City who came to the United States to get my college degree. Yet when asked to reflect from the outside on white privilege at Whitman, I felt like I was not in the right position to do it––even if I am international and, as I’ve been told, “distinctly not white.” I am also privileged. Like many Whitties I belong to a middle-class family and I grew up in an environment that provided me with social capital and many opportunities.

My life story is not extraordinary compared to others that you find at Whitman. What makes me stand out, then?

As I’ve experienced through the years, race and ethnicity are constructed differently in different countries. Back in Guatemala, I was raised as “white”; I was part of the dominant group. When I came to the United States, that label changed: My olive skin became exotic, and my first language dictated that I was “Hispanic.” I became part of a minority.

Whitman is not particularly diverse in terms of race or socioeconomic status: A little over 20 percent of the student body is comprised of students of color, 12.5 percent of students are first-generation college students, and only three percent are international. This makes for an unspoken assumption that everyone comes from a similar background, and shares many of the same life experiences. In classes, there are comments and jokes directed at these commonalities. During my first semester there were times when I felt like I was out of place, and I was intimidated by my peers. As “the other” I felt like my opinion was not relevant, while at the same time I had to prove that I was here not  because I was diverse, but because I was qualified. I was surprised to see subtle remarks that separated me from the white population, like talking about my skin color or place of origin when it was not relevant.

But I am lucky to be here, and so is every Whitman student. It is easy to forget that this is not the norm, when we are surrounded by others who share this privileged position. We forget about the rest of the world and how different things can be. The town that hosts our bubble presents a different scenario.

Hispanics in Walla Walla compose 21.9 percent of the population, and up to 35 percent in the public school system. Hispanics also have a lower high school graduation rate than non-Hispanic whites. Walla Walla County has a lower per capita income than Washington state or the United States as a whole, and 17.5 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, compared to 12.1 percent for Washington state. A lot of Whitties volunteer in the community, but there is no campus-wide discussion on how to engage with Walla Walla and use our education to make structural changes.

We should reflect on our experiences at Whitman, and in the wider community. Almost three years after I came here, I don’t feel pressured to prove myself on campus and I’ve learned to embrace my new otherness, which I hope is the case for all students. I am aware that I am lucky to be at Whitman, and I want others to realize that we have the tools to improve our immediate community if we just step outside the bubble for a bit.