In her memoir, My Time Among the Whites: Notes From an Unfinished Education, Jennine Capó Crucet asks the reader if at one point they’re uncomfortable with the truths she reveals. “Does your answer depend on your race, on whether or not you consider yourself white?” she writes.
This blunt questioning towards the end of the book comes after more than 100 pages revealing her experiences in predominantly white spaces as a Cuban from Miami. From the experience of being a first-generation college student to being in a biracial relationship, to teaching in a predominantly white school, Crucet dissects what life has been like as the “other” and what it’s like when she passes for white. The 196-page memoir released in September of 2019 follows the success of her 2016 debut novel Make Your Home Among Strangers, a story inspired by her time at Cornell University where she struggled to fit in.
The memoir is bracingly honest. It’s filled with the wisdom that only comes with age and experience and touches on what it means to exist in predominantly white spaces. She shows this even on the author page, where her own name has the squiggly red marks that Microsoft Word uses to identify a misspelled word because Latinx names are not mainstream (i.e. white). Crucet grew up in Miami where the Cuban population makes up 25.7 percent of the Miami-Dade county’s total population with nearly 700,000 Cuban-born residents, as of 2017. Having grown up in such an insular environment meant she experienced an even greater culture shock when she landed in an Ivy League with a predominantly white student population. But it wasn’t until she became a professor that she realized how university faculties are also lacking in diversity.
Real talk: I look at this book and feel so proud and scared. Part of me is surprised it exists. There were times when I was sure I couldn’t write it, that my fear would win out over what I knew I needed to say. Here’s proof that the work still happens one sentence at a time. pic.twitter.com/ThRU1ZQsBV
— Jennine Capó Crucet (@crucet) August 27, 2019
“I begin with an essay about going off to college and about how foreign the experience feels to my family because none of us had gone through a college orientation process before,” she explained to HipLatina. “And one of the last essays traces the journey towards becoming a professor myself. So in many ways, I approach these ideas via the very structure of the book — I try to take readers on that same journey.”
In the first chapter, “What We Pack,” she shares how she prepared to head out to Cornell with her family and how they had planned to stay with her while she settled in while the other white parents simply dropped their kids off, something the university encouraged. She also shared how she managed to figure out aspects of university life that were so obvious to other students because she was a first-generation college student.
“This too is a kind of privilege: the resources of people — people who love you — who have navigated a version of the very system you are now navigating,” she writes. With each story sandwiched between her time as a student and her becoming a professor, she astutely analyzes her own privilege while navigating dangerous spaces for someone of color.
In “Cowboy” she discusses how she went to work on a ranch in Nebraska and the rancher was a Fox-watching bigot who saw all Latinx as “Mexicans.” Sitting at the dining table while he talked about how Mexicans were getting free rides she realized he had no idea she was Cuban and she admits being grateful for that security in that moment.
“A protection I’d accessed unintentionally but that I was afraid to voluntarily give up once he’d made it clear how much he hated people like me. But in not giving up that protection, I was helping him perpetuate his ignorance by choosing instead to ensure my own safety. Which is another word for comfort… something we must, in fact, relinquish, if we have any hope of changing each other’s minds,” she writes.
But even as she’s hoping to spark difficult conversations through the book, she’s hoping all readers take the full experience of her journey as a tool versus trying to extract lessons from it. “I don’t think of my books as something readers should learn from; they are something I would like readers to experience,” she explained.
In the midst of addressing white privilege, she also dismantles the fantasy of Disney World, a place that was the equivalent of visiting a playground at a local park for her having grown up so close to Orlando. “It’s powerful and validating to be so forcefully seen over and over again, even in this inaccurate, whitewashed way, and especially when it doesn’t happen in real life, outside of this park, where so much of our experience of American culture reminds us of how ‘other’ we are in our America,” she writes.
She calls out the famous ride Pirates of the Caribbean for multiple reasons including its problematic depiction of the commodification of women and erasure of Caribbean culture. “Disney simultaneously created and remedied (thanks to the ride’s immersive fun) our own erasure,” she writes. “Control the fantasy, and you control the people. The ride kept going and I said nothing.”
But when it comes to white supremacy in the educational system she’s been a vocal advocate for change after seeing first-hand the lack of professors of color after becoming an associate professor in the English department and the Institute for Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). According to a 2018 census report, 79 percent of the population is white in Lincoln, Nebraska and only 8 percent are Latinx and 83.9 percent of the faculty at UNL are white.
“When I became a professor myself, I came to realize that academic faculties at most American universities are predominantly white and don’t reflect their growing diverse student bodies.” In the second to last chapter “Imagine Me Here, Or How I Became a Professor,” she shares the details of an encounter she had during a speaking engagement at a college in the South discussing Make Your Home Among Strangers. During the discussion, she asked the students, “How many times did you see a version of yourself in charge of your learning community?”
Revealing that there was a divide in the responses between white students and students of color, she then shared how studies show that students do better when they have professors who look like them. When she suggests that the school she’s speaking at intentionally hire people of color for at least two of the three openings they had, a white female student responded by saying “but that’s racist.”
Their exchange devolved after Crucet tried to explain how the system is currently racist but the student responded by calling her spiteful and breaking down in tears. At that moment, Crucet recalled a conversation she’d previously had with a Chicanx historian during a tense meeting with white administrators about poor student retention at a school: “There is no more precious commodity than a white woman’s tears,” he said.
She responded to the student by “of course you feel that way, you are white. Doing the right thing is going to seem like unfairness to you.” She experienced a similar altercation in October of this year at Georgia Southern University (GSU) where the novel was required reading for some of the first-year students. She was invited to the campus to discuss some of the themes in the novel and during the question-and-answer portion of the talk, a student questioned her authority to discuss race and white privilege, Crucet said in a statement she shared on Twitter.
— Jennine Capó Crucet (@crucet) October 9, 2019
Some students reportedly felt she was “bullying” white people and making “generalizations” about white privilege and after the hostile exchange, many gathered to burn her book and rip it apart. They then shared the video footage on social media.
“I noticed that you made a lot of generalizations about the majority of white people being privileged,” one respondent said during the exchange, the university’s student newspaper reports. “What makes you believe that it’s okay to come to a college campus, like this, when we are supposed to be promoting diversity on this campus, which is what we’re taught. I don’t understand what the purpose of this was.”
“Her hostile reaction to my work closely mirrored the exchange that I recount in the essay itself. It was very surreal and strange,” Crucet wrote.“I answered the question with the same response that I cite in the essay and mentioned out loud that this moment felt like déjà vu.”
— Jennine Capó Crucet (@crucet) October 10, 2019
“Many students remarked on how much the story of the novel’s protagonist mirrored their own, and expressed gratitude for the book — both to me for writing it and to GSU for selecting it,” Crucet continued. “To think of those students watching as a group of their peers burned that story — effectively erasing them on the campus they are expected to think of as a safe space — feels devastating.”
“We assert that destructive and threatening acts do not reflect the values of Georgia Southern University,” said Russell Willerton, writing and linguistics department chairman. However, the school also said it does not plan to take any action against the students since they exercised their First Amendment rights.
The surreal moment only reinforced why she chose to tell those stories in the first place, in a time when the Latinx community feels threatened and racist rhetoric from the President feels like the norm. The accusation of generalizing an entire community of people is ironic considering she addresses how white people, much like the rancher she encountered, tend to generalize Latinx people. She likes to ask her white students questions about what “white people think” and she writes that they usually laugh in response.
“To them, it’s a funny premise: that all white people could possibly have the same opinion about anything,” she writes. “I say what I’ve been told when put in the same situation, Right, right, I know, but just generally what do white people think about legalizing weed/the president? Like, in general? They never know what to say. They can’t even understand the question. Obviously, they reason. I am insane.”
She explains how Puerto Ricans are not the same as Dominicans, who are not the same as Mexicans, who aren’t like Nicaraguans, who aren’t like Venezuelans and so on, making the point that Latinx are often lumped together by white people who don’t often understand or bother to know the cultural differences.
The book is by no means an easy read, each chapter is an exploration of difficult truths for both white Latinx and white non-Latinx but it’s truths that need to be discussed. It’s authors like Crucet that help to bring these issues to the forefront while elevating Latinx voices in white spaces. She has chosen to step outside of her comfort zone for the sake of empowering her community.
“I wanted to tell these stories because they feel urgent and are relevant to our national cultural conversation right now — and have been in the past and will be in the future,” she explains. “I hope they will help readers think about these issues in ways they maybe haven’t considered before and that the book will be a tool to help have these difficult and necessary conversations in a compassionate, thoughtful way.”