The Unbearable Whiteness of Being

Ivonne Rovira
Ivonne Rovira

Nothing makes a non-progressive White person bristle more than being told that they have White privilege. They look at hardships they’ve faced — barely being able to make ends meet, rising prices, stagnating wages, rising health-care costs, daunting college tuition, the bankruptcies caused by our inadequate health-care system — and feel less than privileged.

So perhaps a change of term might be in order. What about calling it the “Whiteness of being”? (My apologies to Milan Kundera.) Because the default in the United States is that you are White, male, straight, Christian, and solidly middle class. The square pegs forced into these round holes would, understandably, have some bruising at the corners, to continue the metaphor.

I am of Cuban descent, but I am White, so people don’t know. My surname is Catalan (a province of Spain where the native language isn’t Spanish, although, of course, everyone speaks Castilian Spanish, as well. Just Google “Carles Puigdemont” if you need a little added drama in your life). They see Rovira, an odd name ending in a vowel and assume I’m Italian. So I’ve been spared a lot that darker-skinned LatinX folks have faced.

No one assumes my favorite foods are tacos and refried beans, which aren’t part of Cuban cuisine at all. (I had my first taco at 17 at Taco Bell. Just sayin’.) No one is astounded at what good English I speak, even though I was born in New York City. No one is amazed that I attended an Ivy League university. They assume that Spanish is a second language, rather than a first. People are occasionally surprised that I’m Presbyterian rather than Roman Catholic, but even that is pretty rare.

In the Whiteness of being, Whites at the top is normal. No one assumes that they were hired due to affirmative action or that they don’t deserve their job on their own merits – even when they’re the incompetent son of a successful Queens real-estate developer, the son of a beloved governor of Michigan, or the daughter of a Vietnam War hero-turned-Arizona senator. People just assume they must be good – or why would they be at the top? That’s not the status quo for members of minority groups, who are constantly being bombarded with micro-aggressions and skepticism.

In the Whiteness of being, Whites are assumed to be law-abiding until proven otherwise. That’s why a young Black male is three times more likely to be killed by a police officer than his White counterpart. I don’t have to worry about my son being shot if he’s wandering around our neighborhood in a hoodie. I don’t have to worry about my husband being stopped by police because of a broken taillight and ending up arrested or worse. No one ever asks my daughters what they’re doing in our mostly White neighborhood. (Of course, we live in the Highlands, so there’s that.)

I was found to have breast cancer late in 2017. I have insurance. But shouldn’t everyone? For Whites, that’s mostly the case: Only 7.8% of nonelderly Whites lack insurance. For their Black counterparts, it’s 11.4%. Before the Affordable Care Act, things were even more disparate. While 13% of nonelderly Whites lacked health-insurance coverage, for African Americans, that rate was 27%, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

I have been lucky in another way, as well. My father moved to Newark, N.J., in 1962 and bought what in most of America is called a duplex. We moved to Miami in 1967, and we bought a house there in 1968 in a mostly White neighborhood. Unlike African Americans, my father wasn’t forced to buy in a neighborhood where house values would barely rise due to redlining and had access to a fair home loan. The 1968 Fair Housing Act was supposed to end redlining and loan discrimination, but it still hasn’t. So, with each ensuing house purchase, our family — like White families — built equity and wealth. So, as with White families, when it was time for me to buy a home, my parents had enough wealth that they could help me to continue the home ownership advantage; nearly half of Millennial and Gen Z home buyers tap their parents for at least part of their first down payment. We were also lucky that my Cuban dad bought before banks began specifically targeting LatinX families as well as Black families for inferior subprime home loans.

This is not a call for Whites to feel guilty. After all, what good would that do? It’s not to set races against each other; that was set into motion in 1619.

But it is a call to recognize that not everyone has an equal shot at school, work, or life. You’ve gotten some breaks; the best way to show gratitude is to pass some kindness on.

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Commentary

Ivonne Rovira

Ivonne is the research director for Save Our Schools Kentucky. She previously worked for The Miami Herald, the Miami News, and The Associated Press. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)


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