Saturday, September 23, 2023

Opinion: Crossing the border while white, experiencing white privilege in action


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Photos and Story by Carley Olejniczak / Contributing Writer

The following first-person account was written by an MTSU student and is a reflection of her experience while crossing the Mexican border. 

It was the Monday of Spring Break and the first full day of my family’s vacation to San Diego. We decided to spend the afternoon in Tijuana, Mexico, as it was only a 20-minute drive from our condo. We drove as close to the border as we could get but were forced to park and walk the rest of the way, as we were prohibited from driving our rental vehicle across country lines.

As my family and I began our walk into Mexico, I expected to see border security and a checkpoint in which we would present our passports. What I didn’t expect was the 15-foot walls topped with barbed wire that guided our journey, or the armed guards touting automatic weapons as they stood, stone-faced at each interval, scanning their eyes across each person who passed by. I didn’t expect the giant, uninviting concrete building with the word “MEXICO” stamped across its front in big, bold, grey letters that presented a less-than-warm greeting to those who entered. The cold, harsh scenery created an eerie, prison-like feel, and I was immediately filled with a sense that neither we nor anybody else were welcome here.

Once through border security, we walked out into the sunshine and were greeted by the sprawling city of Tijuana. But the town wasn’t what I expected either. There weren’t sandy, white Mexican beaches to relax on, nor were there fun, tourist-friendly gift shops or fresh, exciting Mexican cantinas. What stood before us was a poverty-stricken city, crowded by pedestrians, the homeless and market places filled with Mexican merchants desperately peddling their goods to passersby to make ends meet.

You could sense just how badly each shop owner wanted to make a sale. They’d show you everything they had to offer, dwindling their prices each time you refused a purchase, hoping you’d eventually cave. Unaccompanied children walked the streets and sat on sidewalks, some probably no older than 5, offering gum and candies for a few cents, or simply holding out a plastic cup, hoping for a generous buck or two. The scene was heartbreaking.

I felt extremely uncomfortable as I walked the marketplace. I kept thinking about how, only 20 minutes away from this stark poverty, was one of the richest cities in America. As of 2015, San Diego has been ranked number five in the top wealthiest places in the U.S., according to a Wall Street publication. But right across the border in Mexico, $20,000 a year is considered a middle-class income for the 2 million people living in the shanty-town of Tijuana.

After walking around for several hours, and grabbing a couple of margaritas in a local bar, we decided to head back to the States.

We walked behind a small line of people, all of us headed toward the customs checkpoint to cross back into America. As my family prepared to enter the giant concrete building once again, I noticed an armed guard standing a few feet from the doors. The other American families in front of us walked in, but suddenly, the line was halted when the guards stopped an elderly black man in front of me.

“Excuse me sir, where are you going?” said the officer.

The man replied that he was headed back to the United States.

“I need to see some identification,” the officer demanded.

The man seemed confused, as the building that checked passports was directly in front of him.

“Where were you born? What is your business here?” asked the guard.

He sounded angry. The officer then proceeded to order the man to step aside for further questioning.

The other guards took one look at my middle-class, white family, and we were free to pass right by. As we entered the building, I looked back at the man, feeling the weight of white-guilt, wondering what was going to happen to him. Once inside, we stood in line at the security checkpoint. I watched as several people in front of me were patted down, had their bags searched and sniffed out by K-9s. The people all had one thing in common: They weren’t white.

When it was my turn to present my identification, I showed my documents and was asked a few routine questions: Where was I headed, why did I come to Mexico and if I was bringing anything back across the border. Then I was given the green light and stepped gingerly back into the United States without a hiccup or any fuss.

I’ve always known that my status as a white American gave me more opportunities in life than others, simply because of the unfair social policies and ideologies in our country. Yet, through my experiences in Mexico and crossing the border for re-entry into the U.S., my white privilege was extremely apparent. It was impossible to overlook what was right in front of me. My family and I were being treated differently than the people of color around us. We were ushered in and out without any suspicion or question. We weren’t harassed by border security, nor were we searched, extensively questioned or taken away for who knows what else by the armed guards, as many people in front and behind us were.

I was also reminded just how much I was privileged by observing the culture of poverty in Tijuana.  Never will I have to beg on the streets for spare change, or peddle second-rate goods to have enough money to survive. While this way of life isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to Mexican cities, it’s far and few between to see such low standards of living in America.

My day-trip to Mexico wasn’t what I anticipated. I felt far more guilt and sympathy than any other emotions and was faced with an awkward truth. Most of us don’t want to be reminded that we are better off than our neighbors. We don’t want to acknowledge our privileged status, and we turn away from anything that forces us to recognize that dissonance and invades our little bubble of security. I was exposed to a harsh reality and a lesson of privilege. It was an experience I will never forget.


To contact Lifestyles Editor Mamie Lomax, email

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