I woke up to the pitter-patter of teeny rodent claws on the floorboards and glimpsed a gray blur of a mouse scurrying back to the large crack in the wall. Besides the mouse, I had four other floormates. Atticmates would’ve been a more accurate term, as we all shared a matchbox-sized attic with DIY room dividers built-in.
My walk to the bus stop was punctuated by the occasional crowing of a rooster from someone’s backyard coop or the bell of an approaching paletero pushing a cart full of paletas for sale. The only white people in this neighborhood were officers in police cars, who were constantly patrolling the streets.
One bus ride later, I was in a neighborhood of organic juice bars and pilates studios, their storefronts featuring sleek, minimalist decor. My white family lived in said neighborhood (albeit in one of the smallest, least expensive houses).
As I neared their street, the occasional neighbor would wave to me as they walked their dog in athletic gear. Sometimes they asked where I’d moved, and I’d reply, “City Heights.” There were no follow-up questions, just some mildly pitying looks. Its nickname, “Shitty Heights,” illustrated the quality of life in this neighborhood. In San Diego, as in other highly segregated cities, all you have to say is the name of your neighborhood and people know right away what demographic and socioeconomic status you’re from.
As soon as I reached my family’s house, I went downstairs and snapped on a pair of latex gloves. My family lived upstairs and rented out the downstairs via Airbnb. I cleaned the room after each guest departed and prepared it for the incoming person. This job was mine because I had the most flexible schedule and needed the extra cash.
One time, the incoming renter arrived early — a middle-aged white woman from Napa Valley, traveling for business. She lounged in a patio chair, making strained but polite small talk with me between intermittent sips from her wine glass as I mopped the floor around her.
“How many houses do you usually clean?” she asked.
“Just this one,” I replied.
The ensuing pause was occupied by the back-and-forth sloshing sounds of my mop. She’d assumed I was a cleaning lady rather than a teen doing a (compensated) chore for her parents. I wondered if she would have assumed the same had I been white-passing.
Awkwardly, she broke the silence: “This is a neat little place, isn’t it? Have you ever seen the upstairs part? I got a peek when I stopped by to get my key. It’s lovely!”
Curious to see her reaction, I said, “Yeah, I’ve seen it. I used to live there, actually.”
Her eyebrows jumped to the top of her forehead in two narrow, plucked arcs. “Oh…were you the nanny or something?”
I wasn’t surprised. This certainly wasn’t the first time I’d been asked that. When out in public with my family, I was used to being mistaken for my little half-sister’s nanny. My mom didn’t understand why this bothered me so much. “They’re not trying to be malicious. They’re just strangers! It’s not their fault that they don’t know,” she told me.
What she failed to see was that these assumptions, while not intentionally malicious, were nonetheless harmful because of how racially charged they were. They were based on the implicit association of white people with wealth and ownership and BIPOC with poverty and servitude.
This perception is damaging because it oversimplifies and perpetuates the systems of oppression that produce the correlation of race to socioeconomic status. In our society, skin color is often seen as a financial indicator. To quote President-elect Joe Biden, “Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.”
Regardless of how well-intended such statements may be, they reinforce the idea that non-white people are inherently socially and economically inferior. It is a shift of responsibility, implying that the fault lies with the oppressed groups rather than with the systems that oppress them in the first place.
Race and ethnicity are used to classify people and attribute to them certain characteristics that define them from birth. This hierarchy shapes our opportunities for success. Racial and ethnic constructs create, perpetuate and justify inequality, which also leads to structural and cultural violence against underprivileged groups.
BIPOC who have the resources for social mobility are often denied the chance to move up the socioeconomic ladder. This system of stratification is entrenched in rules, cultural norms and institutions that make elitism a tradition and exclude qualified minorities from partaking. BIPOC are generally kept out of elite circles because the tradition of rich white dominance is institutionalized in our class system. Even the minorities that make it into that highest social class still face many difficulties.
When I first moved into my student co-op, I took a gazillion photos of the entire place — it was one of the biggest houses I’d ever been in, a 40-person house that was once a mansion for a single family.
Perhaps the fervent photographing was my way of clinging to the memory of it. A part of me fears that this is the nicest space that I will ever have the chance to inhabit. The most sinister danger of the popular association of BIPOC with a lower quality of life is that we begin to internalize it.
In the United States, your skin color speaks before you do. After cleaning the Airbnb, I would take the bus from my family’s house back to my place. Through the window, I would notice how the neighborhoods and skin colors changed in sync as we drove.
I got off at my stop, walked home with my hood up and my hands in my pockets, passively musing about whether it was merely a coincidence that, despite being a family, my white relatives and I inhabit such different worlds.