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  • Nevaeh Gutierrez

Colonizing My Life Back

I was six years old when I was told I had an “[n-word] booty.” I remember feeling uncomfortable being sexualized, and I questioned why my behind was being described in the manner of an racial slur. I was eleven years old when I found myself in handcuffs, in the back of a police car after being racially profiled. I remember the officer yelling at me, “This will teach you to be respectful,” after listing my Miranda Rights. I was fifteen years old when a white professor told me that I was not competent enough to pursue engineering. I remember feeling resentful, as the single brown person present, that I was the only person being discouraged. I was sixteen years old when I was called a “beaner” by a student from an affluent, predominately white high school water polo team, after making a score on them. I remember the girls staring at me like I was some alien creature they had never interacted with before. I was seventeen years old when I made my first white friend. I remember moving from a predominately brown community to a predominately white institution (PWI), feeling nervous and intimidated around white peers. I was recently described by an administrator working in mental health as “angry [for no reason]” when expressing my feelings, questions, and concerns about the significance of being identified as an “Opportunity Program (OP) student” in the context of racial identity, power, income, and social standing.

Whether intentional or not, all of these instances were racialized. I was unaware of the hyper-sexualization of women of color. I was unaware that law enforcement disproportionately targets people, let alone children of color. I was unaware that women of color are underrepresented in the STEM field because they are excluded based on race and gender, which Patricia Hill Collins describes as “two interlocking systems of oppression.” I was unaware that the term “beaner” is a historically anti-Mexican slur. I was unaware of the value of placemaking, or the ways that people “transform the places in which we find ourselves into places we live,” and I took for granted the security that comes with being in a community that looks like you and shares your struggles. I was unaware that Hamilton, like many institutions, has glamorized diversity to benefit white students who desire a “progressive” environment. However, for the majority of my life, I did not have the racial literacy to articulate my experiences. The discourse I had with racism and racial inequality was surface level, and I never spoke of race in relation to racism, inequality, and its power. None of my experiences are unique, and racism does not, and can not exist in a vacuum. Increasing my racial literacy in a mythical colorblind society has encouraged me to understand race and racism outside of my own experiences and think of what a truly equitable society can look like globally.

I grew up in Montebello (Spanish for “beautiful mountain”), California, a city in Los Angeles County. It is a predominantly Latino community and the “10th most segregated city in the state.” My mother and I practically grew up together. During her senior year of high school, she had me and graduated with me in her arms. My mother struggled as a single teen mom without the support of either parent and looked towards the state to provide support for us. I was accustomed to how state benefits worked from an early age: the weekly Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) appointments I had to attend with a doctor in order to receive food, the lengthy application process of obtaining subsidized housing, the stigma that comes with receiving welfare, and the struggle of not knowing if you were poor enough in a means-tested system, or simply a “deserving” poor. However, my experience with welfare and stigma was a shared experience with most of my peers, who also received benefits like free or reduced lunch at school from the state.

I attended public school in the Montebello Unified School District. Given the majority makeup of my city was Latino, the public school system reflected a high population of Latino students (~80%). My community “had substantially [high] concentrations of poverty among Latinos,” and the majority of students benefited from state welfare. My school was therefore not considered a “good” school; as Margaret Hagerman describes, “a good school is in a good neighborhood, and a good neighborhood is a wealthier and whiter neighborhood.” The idea of a good school is deeply tied to racial domination: “an arrangement of racial life in such a way that its ordinary, everyday workings…serve to benefit certain racial groups at the expense of others,” read a slide in a lecture from now-resigned Hamilton sociology Professor Alex Manning. The words “wealthier” and “whiter” are racially coded to refer to the race and class composition of a school.

Manning also explained the idea that schools should be managed and led efficiently and has situated them in a “free-market system based on competition,” which means all schools will be labeled as either a success or as a failure. Consequently, private schools represent a “success” story and a commitment to taking advantage of private entities to deliver the service of a better education. I first realized I attended an underserved and underprivileged school when my sophomore year English teacher told my entire class that we would need to work extra hard to fill in the gaps in our education. I felt my lack of resources personally without knowing the institutional consequences my community and I were facing. Neoliberal assumptions fail to recognize the systemic racism and racial inequality in segregated public schools. Manning shared that when “predominantly Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous school districts receive 23 billion dollars less than predominantly white school districts,” students of color are collectively at a clear disadvantage in comparison to white students.

I began to realize that it was unnatural for me to exclusively interact with low-income Brown, Black, and Asian students. I realize now that this was my attempt to articulate the socialization of race and segregation and reject its naturalization before I had the language to decipher my experiences. Applying to higher education, I assumed the opposite to also be true: that is, though it was unnatural for me to be surrounded by strictly marginalized students, it also feels unnatural to attend an institution like Hamilton, which, from the students and professors to the Board of Trustees, is predominantly white. However, I believed deeply in the fallacy that only the South was racist, because of the history of the Confederacy and segregation. I naively assumed that I would be safer in the liberal North. I assumed that since New York was similar to California in the sense that it was more “woke,” that Hamilton’s commitment to diversity and equity would provide security, regardless of the domination of white people in the area. However, institutional racism does not, and can not exist in a vacuum, and Hamilton is deeply involved in the perpetuation of racial inequality.

Nevertheless, I was admitted to Hamilton on the assumption that I would first successfully complete a rigorous five-week program. While I worked for The Academic Center for Excellence (ACE) as a student assistant during my first-year, I was settled in a prime location for campus tours. While viewing these campus tours occasionally, it was clear that OP students continue to be minoritized on an institutional level. The Hamilton College Opportunity Program consists of two academic programs: the Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Opportunity Program, which is open strictly to New York state residents and the Hamilton College Scholars Program, which is open to students from all geographic backgrounds. However, not all New York residents in OP, are in HEOP. And therefore, we are all “OP students,” although I have only ever heard folks call us “HEOP students” until recently, Aaron Ray, the director of OP, mentioned the distinctions. I have also heard several versions of what non-OP tour guides and peers believe OP happens to be: “[OP] is a program for students who need extra support because they are not technically supposed to be here,” “for the unfortunate,” “the kids who are poor and did not do well on their SATs,” “the students with affirmative action,” and so on. The Opportunity Program identified me as a student who does not fit the typical Hamilton students’ academic profile but demonstrates the ability to become one, given the “opportunity.”

Attending the summer program meant arriving six weeks before “typical” first-years to be challenged from 7 AM to 11:15 PM (some if not most nights, up to 2 AM to complete homework) to complete eight required courses successfully. My friends and I constantly spoke up about how uncomfortable we felt being placed in a program that demanded more from us than the average Hamilton student. Our upperclassmen tutors shared a similar feeling, explaining how they had it even worse with the previous director, Phyllis Breland (now retired and on the Board of Trustees), who made “dining etiquette” training a formal part of the OP program. None of us felt like we “lacked” the ability to succeed at Hamilton, as we shared our AP scores, extracurricular activities, and GPAs. Ironically, all of my Hamilton courses and college experience thus far have not been even remotely as challenging as the summer program. We all understood ourselves as separated from our white, affluent peers since the program was filled with distinctly lower-income and/or disadvantaged students.

My acceptance letter and the summer program, therefore, reminded me of all the qualities and opportunities I lacked. I could not escape the elitism of private higher education because public higher education was also costly (~$20,000 per semester with a $0 expected family contribution), and Hamilton was the only institution that met my full financial need. I pushed through, reminding myself that I needed to be the first person in my family to attend higher education to help my family escape the cycle of poverty.

Halfway through the program, I received my roommate assignment and was placed in a six-pull for the academic school year. My first encounter with my living situation included a white roommate and her white mother asking about my family’s income, to move my things from the area I’d already selected so they could have it, and to do the daughter’s laundry because she apparently didn’t know how. It was clear to me I was being treated as lesser because of my race and class. Luckily, my RA was a Latina Posse student who heard me when I told her I needed her help. However, when my area advisor, Sarah Kosha, came up to assist me, she catered to the mother without addressing my concerns and the distress I was under. I remember being so overwhelmed with my roommate experience that I scheduled a meeting with my RA by the second week and started crying because my roommate's microaggressions were starting to take a toll on my mental health. My RA tried to advocate for me, but Residential Life explained to her that they could not do anything about my roommate situation until there was physical violence inflicted on me.

My experiences at Hamilton are in no way isolated; we live in a racialized society structured by a racial hierarchy. The recent resignation of several college professors of color, including Professor Manning, reminds all students of Hamilton's long history of harassment and white supremacy. After the college received a cease and desist letter from a white, privileged, entitled student tied to the Alexander Hamilton Institute (a white supremacist, right-winged group), after the Student Assembly rejected his Judicial Board nomination at the recommendation of my committee, Justice & Equity, I have learned to take precautions to protect myself. David Wippman’s response to the letter was threatening. He made it clear that he would be forced to impose disciplinary actions to address and rectify the cease and desist letter. He told Assembly members to find lawyers and offered no protection to students who were targeted unjustly. Despite the cease and desist threatening to sue students, he repeatedly declined to share copies with Assembly members.

Hamilton’s failure to support and provide a safe environment for students and professors of color reveals the blatantly racist and white supremacist environment of Hamilton College. The forced integration of students of color and the disregard of our needs is an example of the failure of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at Hamilton, an institution that centers and values Whiteness. Similar to Hangerman’s critique of diversity in affluent white schools, Hamilton College is an institution that “celebrates diversity and multiculturalism, but by and large, a critical lens on how this diversity is connected to inequality is missing.” And as marginalized students try to assert themselves at an institution that does not truly value them, there becomes a visible divide between us and our white peers and professors. It is especially difficult not to begin to hate yourself in an environment that reminds you that you are not desired, and over time can even turn into internalized racism.

Internalized racism is something I found myself struggling with from a young age. As a young girl, I battled with situating myself as the darkest girl in my family. My aunties would call me names like “morena,” referring to my darker skin in a derogatory form, and it harmed my self-image and made me wish I was lighter to fit in with my family. In addition, the lack of representation in the most popular TV shows, video games, and influencers on social media, or even the dolls I played with, took a toll on me.

I used to hate being brown. I hated my brown eyes. I hated my brown hair. I hated seeing how much hair was all over my body. I hated how dark my underarms were. I hated the peach fuzz on my face. I hated the dark mustache that would grow back faster each time I tried to shave it. I remember using the “skin” color crayon when drawing myself and loving that version of myself, on paper, more than my natural form. I hated my melanin so much that when I was nine years old, I tried bleaching my skin. I was filled with internalized racism. I recall making a list of ways to become beautiful: fair skin, skinny, long hair, and straight white teeth. I remember hating myself for lacking these characteristics.

Today I am very pro-brown. I love my skin. But when I was young, my perception of beauty was tied to what Patricia Hill Collins calls the matrix of domination, where sites of oppression are rooted in “either/or dichotomous thinking of Eurocentric, masculinist thought,” where “privilege is defined in relation to its other.” I viewed myself in relation to whiteness, and saw whiteness as something I was to achieve.

Now that I have increased my racial literacy, I have worked to decolonize my perception of beauty. I have grown to become a proud Chicana. Articulating how race and racism have fit into my life from macro and micro levels is vital to my mission to free my family and community from the oppression they face.

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