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Ways of Seeing, Mary E. Mendoza: Encounters with race, class, privilege

Very recently, I attended a fancy dinner with wealthy white people who give money for a particular cause. I was there as an academic who specializes in the history of the U.S.-Mexico border.
I am a Mexican-American woman. I grew up in south Texas where I was raised by two wonderful parents. My father is a bricklayer and, together, when I was five years old, he and my mother started their own small construction company. Today, well into their sixties, they still run that small business. Last week, in fact, I called my dad on Sunday morning to find that he was out in the Texas heat working. He is 66 years old.
They work because they have to. When my siblings and I were young, we did not have much. My parents worked very hard to provide us with what we needed to go out into the world to become good citizens.
When my brother graduated from high school and went off to junior college, my parents scraped and saved to buy him a used car so he could have transportation. When my sister went off to Yale, they took out loans and worked hard to pay their share of her tuition. When I went off to Middlebury, they did the same for me.
They still work because for the longest time, they invested everything they had into my siblings and me.
On at least two occasions that we know of, my father literally broke his back working. We cannot pinpoint one of those times because it was only after months of incredible back pain that he finally went to the doctor to find that he had fractured his spine and it had already healed.
The second time was three years ago when I was in graduate school. I was doing research at an archive in California when I learned that my dad had fallen off a scaffold. Within weeks of these incidents, he was back at work in some capacity because that is my dad. He works. He never vacations. When he comes to visit me in Vermont, he looks for projects around my house, or even around my friends’ houses that he can do.
A couple of summers ago, he built a ramp to get into my house for my ailing dog who had increasing trouble climbing stairs. When he finished that project, he went to my friend’s house and built her a woodshed.
My father does not rest because he has never had the luxury of doing so. Not ever.
Every day I am extremely proud to be his daughter. Together with my mother, they have provided a jumping off point for their children to get educations and, hopefully, do some good in this world without the back pain that comes along with the kind of physical labor my father has endured his whole life. I think my parents’ labor has paid off. After all, as I write this, I am sitting at my desk as a visiting scholar at one of the finest research libraries in the country. Apparently my voice matters enough to get me invited to fancy dinners where I get to talk about my scholarship. I’ve worked hard to get where I am (after all, I had a great role model in my father) and, I guess I’ve “made it.”
Except that it does not always feel that way. You see, when I was at the fancy dinner, sitting at a table full of wealthy, white people, one of them asked me, “What do your parents do?” I replied, “My father is a bricklayer who has a small construction company and my mother helps him with office work out of our home.”
The white man looked at me, his faced dropped. He appeared to be sad for me and he said, “Oh, that’s OK.”
That’s. OK.
This kind of response is unacceptable. I know it’s OK, thank you very much.
This is not the first time this has happened to me and it will not be the last, but let me use this platform to say something to white people everywhere: Do not look at me and feel sorry for me, start getting a clue about race and privilege in this country. Understand that responses like this are disrespectful and discount the decades of hard work that my father has done to put me in the “privileged” position of sitting at a table with you. You don’t get to discount my voice because I am a woman. Or because I am Latina. Or because I come from humble beginnings.
This particular event occurred in southern California, but this same kind of interaction has happened to me countless times in Vermont, and thus this message is a good one for our small, predominately white community.
Please think before you speak. See the power dynamics and the history of white/black/brown/male/female relations in your every interaction, big or small. What you say in the context of a long, fraught history of racial and gender inequality matters. It’s time to stop discounting and patronizing people of color and women. White (and male) supremacy comes in many forms, some of them more subtle than others, all of them damaging, and all of them completely unacceptable.
Mary E. Mendoza is an assistant professor of history at the University of Vermont and the David and Dana Dornsife Fellow for Historical Work in the American West at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif. She lives in Weybridge.

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