Race and Privilege

Michael Tolosa

I’m a half Filipino, half Caucasian man, who never thinks of himself in racial terms. Others may look at me and have preconceived ideas of who I am or what I’m like, but half the time I don’t even know who I am or what I’m like – so good luck figuring it out.

Growing up, my family was either poor, or extremely stingy. Most of the toys I owned were either second-hand purchases from local thrift stores or delivered by mail in exchange for three proofs of purchase from Cookie Crisp.

Privilege Alert: I grew up in a home that had both a mom and a dad.

When I was 13, my family relocated from the racial mixing bowl of northern Virginia to rural West Virginia. I spent my junior high and high school years as the minority of minorities. That means I got crap from both whites and blacks. The only reason I didn’t get more crap than I did is because I kept my mouth shut (I was an extreme introvert) and my classmates thought I knew karate.

(Seriously, the first thing anyone said to me on my first day of school was, “Do you know karate?” I kept my mouth shut, and rumor went around that I did, so I didn’t bother refuting it.)

Not to say that my time in WV was bad, or that people there are racist. Overwhelmingly, the people I knew there were awesome. I made a lot of friends with most of the cliques and social circles, because I was quiet, nice and friendly. Unfortunately, there are bad apples wherever you go – and I wasn’t mature enough at the time to do anything but hang my head and ignore them.

After high school, I returned to the safe comfort of the northern Virginia mixing bowl. My college campus had so many different races, I couldn’t keep them all straight – and I simply blended in.

Privilege Alert: My parents busted their butts to put three kids through college at the same time without incurring student loan debt.

Privilege Alert: I got financial aid for being both Asian and Appalachian. (Hey, if you’re offering free money…)

After 4 years of learning how to think critically and write professionally, I entered the workforce. I had an English degree with a concentration in Film & Media Studies (what?). So, my next step in life wasn’t very obvious. I immediately became a high school substitute teacher and got enough experience at the end of the ‘98 school year to decide teaching wasn’t for me.

I lived in the basement of my relatives’ house for a year or so (1998-99), while I sat in front of a computer all day and all night – and taught myself Photoshop, Dreamweaver, Flash and online publishing. I also very clumsily taught myself how to capture video and publish it online (maybe this will catch on?).

Privilege Alert: My dad had access to computer hardware and software from his office that I was able to use and learn.

One Sunday at church, I happened to talk with a couple I didn’t know, Rich and Ingrid. I don’t remember what we talked about, but Ingrid asked me if I knew anything about computer software or the internet. I told her how I taught myself how to code HTML and use design software. She offered me a job as a web software tester.

Privilege Alert: I received the kindness of strangers through the providence of God.

This job opportunity changed my career trajectory, and I’ve been in web development and digital marketing ever since. (During the “dot bomb” of 2001, I thought I had made a mistake going into this field, but everything eventually worked out.)

Today, I’m always shocked when someone brings my race to my attention. I always forget I’m half Filipino until someone reminds me. It seriously doesn’t cross my mind. I don’t look at a white person and think I’m different than him or her.

Since relocating from northern Virginia to Charlotte, I’ve noticed a difference in how people in my own office act when I walk past them in the hall. In northern Virginia, people are very pleasant and say hello or nod their head and smile when you pass them, even if you don’t know them. At my office in Charlotte, aside from the people I work with regularly, only the minorities tend to acknowledge my presence. Could be a sales culture thing, or something – I don’t know – but these days, I’m reminded of my race more and more.

But it doesn’t get me down.

I enjoy a fulfilling and rewarding career that allows me to explore my artistic interests on the side. I have a family that I love and who loves me. I have much-needed community fellowship through neighborhood friends and my church. You might look at me and think I live a privileged life. You’re right. But it has nothing to do with my race – obviously. No one’s going around wishing they had Pino privilege.

In recent days, I’ve heard people say they want to tear down sources of privilege. Why? So everyone’s in the same miserable boat? Why wouldn’t you rather find ways to raise people up?

By recollecting the privileges I’ve experienced in my life, I’ve identified the following aspects of society I could help raise up:

  • Encourage family units that include both parents.
  • Encourage character traits like hard work, sacrifice and humility.
  • Discourage debt of any kind.
  • Encourage college education.
  • Encourage and offer internships.
  • Encourage careers in fields that pay well.
  • Make software and training more available.
  • Encourage networking and social skills.
  • Encourage critical thinking and written communication skills.

I encourage you also to take an hour or so to do a similar recollection exercise. Evaluate your life and how you came to be where you are today. You may discover ways you are uniquely equipped to help people in your community succeed in this country.

Also, if you ever want to discuss your thoughts on this topic with me, I am willing and eager to hear you out.

God bless you.