Eric Quesada identifies as Mexican-American, but convincing people of that can be tough.
He was born in East San Jose but grew up in Saratoga. He works in construction but is related to a founder of the tech company AMD. Eric says whites often struggle to view him as Mexican. Because he is tall and articulate, he suspects that leads people to believe he's Italian or Greek or Arab. And some Mexicans make him feel like he's not as Mexican as they are because of his privileged background and his less-than-fluent, California-style Spanish.
"We have nice homes and nice things and nice clothes," Quesada says. "And I'm constantly asked what I am. Because I'm 6-foot-4, nobody thinks I'm Mexican."
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Still, his heritage can make for some uncomfortable moments, including recently at a bar in Los Gatos. He went there after work, in his jeans and work boots, and cleared a table to share with his girlfriend.
"A guy started to sit at the table I was clearing. And he clearly thought I worked there and was clearing the table for him," says Quesada. "And I had to look at him and say, you know, 'Excuse me, I want to sit here.' And he just looked very surprised, very shocked, that I was gonna sit there."
Quesada says his white friends often ask him if he's sure that the situation was actually motivated by racial insensitivity: What if he's just being touchy?
"I think they're thinking ... 'That couldn't possibly happen to you, like ... really?' Yeah, it still happens. It even happens to me. So imagine, if it's happening to me, how bad it is for somebody who is short and darker. I just think ... how much rougher it must be for them."
The skepticism of Quesada's friends might tie into a concept that has been getting more attention these days: white privilege. The days of outright racism made whites a higher social class, by law and by custom. White privilege is a kind of aftermath: It's the social perks many whites enjoy today through no fault or effort of their own, including insulation from subtle acts of racism.
Research shows these advantages persist regardless of socioeconomic status. Poor whites still fare better than poor blacks, according to one study out of Johns Hopkins University.
New research from Stanford is also exploring how white privilege fuels skepticism about racial advantage. Researchers found that whites who were shown evidence of white privilege expressed more skepticism about it by claiming to have endured more hardships in life, perhaps to blunt the suggestion that they enjoyed unearned benefits.
"We find that when people learn about privilege, they often think, 'Oh, does this mean I don't deserve my outcomes? Have I done something wrong? Have I not earned what I have?' " says Stanford researcher Taylor Phillips. "And that is part of what privilege is. It's saying you got more than maybe you would have gotten if you weren't part of this group of part of this category."
However, the study also shows a key to overcoming this skepticism: self-affirmation. Whites who completed a self-affirming exercise before seeing the evidence of white privilege were more likely to accept that evidence. This seems to blunt feelings of being a bad person or being complicit in this privilege, so one doesn't have to deny its existence to make oneself feel better.
"What we try to do by using this affirmation is help people recognize that denying or defending privilege isn't necessarily the way to make themselves feel better again," says Phillips. "Instead, if they try to address the privilege, that might be a path to feeling good about yourself again."