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Disabled, but still white

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When I used to visit my grandparents’ house, we walked once a day to Trader Joe’s in casual clothes to get bananas and maybe another small item. With the community of Santa Barbara as the backdrop, the coastal weather provides for lovely walks in the sunshine under the palm trees as we weave through the neighborhood to get to the commercial street — Calle Real — where Trader Joe’s is. A faint smell of burgers from restaurants teases us as we walk. My cousins can zip along on their scooters in front of us, and no one worries about them as long as someone crosses the street with them. We talk, debate or laugh about any topic we want without feeling judged. The whole experience is freeing and helps us deepen our bond with one another.  

Yet it is an experience I eventually recognized could not be shared by everyone. As I learned about my privilege, I realized that not everyone can walk around the neighborhood without thinking twice about our safety as my family can. Not everyone can enter a Trader Joe’s staffed by majority white workers and remain unworried that they will be perceived as potential shoplifters.  

This idea first crossed my mind in December, as the time for me to visit my grandparents was drawing nearer. Ever since I was one years old and diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy, I had to work as hard as anyone just to be a high school student, and feel like I have consistently proven myself to earn the respect that my able-bodied peers have. But thinking about that made me realize how much privilege I do have if this staple in my experience at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s is an impossible danger for some people.

This thought was perpetrated by my English class discussions about race and, in the wake of George Floyd’s, Breanna Taylor’s and Ahmaud Arbery’s murders, has made me realize how much privilege I have and the lack of diversity that exists in parts of my life. 

I have grown up in a pretty liberal household and a progressive community that is affluent with the majority of people being white or Asian.

But my mom’s side is pretty diverse even though we all appear light-skinned and can go to Trader Joe’s in a t-shirt without thinking twice; my aunts identify as LGBTQ+, my sister and I both have disabilities, my aunt and her kids are half-Black, and my grandpa immigrated from Egypt to avoid religious persecution. We are a highly intellectual family that talks about politics and social justice causes.

I will always remember hearing about Trayvon Martin’s death from a conversation between my grandparents and my parents as the first time I was introduced to the racism that persisted after the civil rights movement. At the time, I thought that this blatant racism and hatred were rare.

As I grew older, I learned about racism sporadically in history classes, but it was not until my high school English classes, my freshman year and especially last year and consequential conservations with my family about race that I started to realize some of the struggles people of color face daily in this country.  It was my true introduction to the complexity of systemic racism in America.

Though my school curriculum has typically painted a less than accurate picture about race, I have been always interested in race and still am. At first, it was because I loved the justice narrative of race in America, or what I had perceived to be the justice narrative in America. However as I learned more, I noticed that my perception was inaccurate.  Realizing this and continuing to learn about race helped me partially understand how oppression originates and morphs as time passes and continues to give me clarity as to why so many people face discrimination and oppression.

For me, the racial struggles people face daily crystalized when I thought about my mother’s family’s walks being a privilege. Still, I thought of this pervasive racism even more when I thought about how many privileges my white privilege has given me in school.

Until high school, I did not have a Latinx classmate in a non-special education class for a full year. Until middle school, I could easily count every non-white or non-Asian classmate of mine on my hands. 

My first time having a mainstream teacher of a race other than white was in the second semester of seventh grade before I eventually went on to have three more. Two of them were Latinx and taught Spanish or Physical Education; the other two were Asian and taught math or science. 

With my high school being the only diverse school I have attended and my friend group made up of people of white and Asian descent that has stayed the same since middle school, I have never seen racism firsthand. I have never had to be taught “the rules,” a code for Black people to follow in altercations with police, but rather heard about it through watching The Hate You Give. I never had to be taught the n-word because it was spray-painted on my house or because I was called that, but rather my parents taught it to me before we watched 42 as a family.

Furthermore, we can afford to wait until my younger cousins go to bed or leave the conversation before we even decide to talk about race. We have the privilege of speaking on it when we want to discuss it, rather than the necessity of discussing it as means of survival.

Sure, some people think I am dumb and patronize me. Sure, it will be hard for me to land a job, but it will happen. Sure, it is frustrating when people do not understand my speech. Sure, it is irritating when it is harder to navigate where I need to go because the easy way is non-accessible. Sure, I am embarrassed when I fall or spill something because of the lack of control my disability allows me to have. Sure, it takes me more time to do stuff than it takes others.

But I can trust that the police will not kill me. I can trust that if I am murdered, my murderer(s) will be arrested and served justice, rather than set free and able to horrifically justify their actions as measures of self-defense. I can trust that I can make mistakes without facing disproportionate consequences that will ruin my life. I can trust that the justice system will handle me fairly instead of forcing me to plead guilty. I can trust that I can buy a house anywhere without facing grudging neighbors. 

I will not get shot for minding my own business. I will not be a target for hate. I will not have to silence myself for my well-being. I will not be a representative of my race as a whole anywhere in this country. I will likely never be the only one of my race in a room full of people or the ‘token’ white person in a group setting. I will not have to listen to people of a different race glorify people who oppressed my ancestors. 

Sure, I am disabled, but that only strips away a fraction of my white privilege.

Contact Max Zonana at maxzonana ‘at’ gmail.com.

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Max Zonana is a high schooler writing as part of The Stanford Daily's Summer Journalism Workshop.