Op Ed: The disempowerment of inequality
Ex Fabula Fellow Cris Siqueira originally shared this story at “Race in the Workplace,” an event on March 24. Ex Fabula Fellows tell personal stories to inspire community-led dialogue around some of the most pressing issues in the Greater Milwaukee area — segregation, and economic and racial inequality.
“You just love to struggle, don’t you? You gotta get rid of that cloud,” the bank manager said to me last year, when I found out a client was late making a payment. With ten dollars to my name and an avalanche of bills coming up, I didn’t need that lady to accuse me of bringing the problem on myself.
That reminded me of another instance at UW-Milwaukee when a professor was helping me with a job application. At one point she got aggravated with my questions about the process. “Why bother?” she blurted. “You don’t stand a chance anyway.”
I moved to Milwaukee from Brazil almost 12 years ago. Since then I graduated with two master’s degrees from UWM, traveled the country, met a family of friends, grew roots, fell in love and made a home in Wisconsin. I am immensely grateful for the opportunities and people I found in the United States. I feel beyond lucky.
This experience came with a transformation that may sound familiar to other immigrants. I was raised “white” in Brazil, but in America I am considered a person of color, Latina, the “other.”
I don’t mind people’s curiosity. It is an unfortunate conundrum for the expat that you may turn into an ambassador for the motherland. You voluntarily leave Brazil behind, only to become Brazilian 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Sure, I can talk soccer and samba all day long. That’s the fun part. I have also been asked “What are you?” and routinely get stares that say “there’s something off with that Mexican.” A lady once mouthed “South American, huh?” at a restaurant – I think she won a bet.
Such attitudes may sound obnoxious to some, but they don’t hurt me personally, perhaps because I wasn’t raised with prejudice aimed at me.
Regardless, I was in tears at the bank and after meeting my professor. Unlike behaviors that reflect culture shock, their remarks revealed deeper negative perceptions. The underlying assumption was that whatever financial trouble I had was probably caused by myself, and for some reason teaching college was out of my league, even with a 3.9 GPA and a terminal degree.
Some may resist the idea that this has anything to do with race or nationality. But I have my experience as a white, upper middle-class person in Brazil to compare it to. I can’t imagine my bank manager in São Paulo being anything but helpful in a similar situation. At the same time, and to be fair, I have counted on the support of a number of professors in both countries, including the one in this story – but I don’t remember ever being so bluntly dismissed by a person who was supposedly helping me. Either way, little stabs happen routinely and these are just two examples. I am constantly faced with situations that affect my self-esteem and even my chances to succeed.
Obviously, my story is not very dramatic and I will be fine. These are minor offenses when compared to the injustices and atrocities faced by many immigrants and people of color in Brazil and in the United States. However, they give me first-hand contact with the eroding power of naturalized racism in the daily routine. They also amplify my empathy for those who undergo similar – and much more drastic – processes of disempowerment.
Disempowered people can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Why bother?” I never did apply for that job. Conversely, as a white person in Brazil I was always expected to succeed professionally. Amazing people believed in me early on and consistently. It has become one of my life goals to be such an empowering force for those around me – knowing that people in oppressing situations are not mysteriously attached to the cloud over their head. And sometimes it may even be enough not to be the cloud.