As a person who has one foot in Ecuador and another one in the United States, I have often felt guilty. Guilty that I have U.S. citizenship and can travel around the world while many of my friends in Ecuador can’t. Guilty that I go to Bowdoin College and receive many resources and financial benefits. Guilty that I live with extreme comfort while I have the knowledge that many in the Ecuador and the U.S. are constantly struggling. But guilt is a paralyzing feeling that didn’t show me how to use my privileged position in society.

When I moved to the U.S. and came to Bowdoin I started learning about a privilege I had never heard of before: white privilege. As a biracial Latina student I initially understood this concept abstractly, but didn’t connect it to my life until I took a class called “Race and Ethnicity.” I knew that race existed from a young age by observing the contrasting way in which my white “American” mother and Ecuadorian mestizo father were treated, but I didn’t understand that I had white privilege. Its implications overwhelmed me.

The house where my white mother and grandmother live is an example of the white privilege present in my life. When I go to St. Louis, MO—where most of my family lives—I am welcomed in a safe, well-kept neighborhood, in the same house that my white great-grandparents helped my grandmother buy. This house, where my family and I came when we were going through hardship in Ecuador, represents the racial inequality and injustice present in the U.S. The neighborhood is still all-white, just like it was when my great-grandparents bought it, and it’s located on the “good” side of town. My great-grandparents—who were white—were allowed to buy this house in this neighborhood; that is no coincidence. The practice of redlining continues to have very negative effects on African Americans in St. Louis, but it benefited my white family and allowed them to buy a house at a good price, while blacks were barred from the same options. Even after three generations, I am reaping the benefits of living in a racist society that prioritized my family’s whiteness at the expense of blacks in St. Louis.
The fact that my mother is white and lived in a place where practically everyone was college educated, where blacks were legally not allowed to live in for a part of St. Louis’ history, had a huge effect on her chances of going to college. On top of this, as a white student she was perceived as being smarter than her black peers in her school. This type of unfair advantage that my mother was paid at the price of others, blacks, who had to prove their worthiness to teachers who gave it for free to white students. When I began to go to her same high school I realized this continued to be the case. I was immediately put into the most advanced classes when I walked into the counselor’s office with my white mother and only later learned, after talking to my black peers, that black students had very different experiences when they walked into that same office with their parents. 

Over the years, I have realized that I have many privileges in my life, but what should I do with all this knowledge of my position in society and the unequal structures that privilege me? Privilege is a tool. It is power and can be used in multiples ways. President Rose’s talk last Tuesday about race is a great, specific example of using white privilege to change unequal relations that still exist in our society. Using white privilege means coming to grips with a reality that you didn’t necessarily create, but that you are benefiting from. This is hard to do, but can also feel incredibly eye opening.

We can all learn how to use privilege wisely to change the very structures that created it. Even if you’re not white, but biracial or something else (like me), by being a student at Bowdoin College, you have a lot of privilege. It’s hard to get to Bowdoin and people struggle to get into this place because of all the benefits that it gives us. It is up to us to use all these benefits to change unequal power structures. It starts by learning about the ways in which we have received unfair advantages at the expense of others.