Many Villages: Racial Privilege


This semester I’m taking a course on Cross-cultural counselling. Part of the coursework is a weekly journal reflecting on anything I’ve learned, thought about, or found challenging from the course material. I decided to post parts of these reflections in a weekly series called “Many Villages”.

Two weeks ago in class, we took a 28 question quiz about privileges. It provided me with fascinating insights about my own experience growing up in a culture where most people seem to be like me. Grab a pencil (or text doc) and write down your answers, True or False.

1. I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.

2.I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

3. Someone of my same race has been president of my country.

4. If I am/was in a relationship, I can be affectionate with my partner in any given neighborhood and feel safe.

5. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area that I can afford and in which I would want to live.

6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.

7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials, at any age, that testify to the existence and history of their race.

8. I can be sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge” I will be facing a person of my race.

9. I can be sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge” I will be facing a person of my gender.

10. I never have to deal with a passer-by being afraid of me.

11. I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color that more or less matches my skin.

12. Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can be assured that the person behind the cash register will not assume that my checks are stolen, my credit card is maxed out, or that my cash is counterfeit.

So, what was that like? What was your ratio of true to false? How did you feel while taking the quiz?

As we worked through the quiz, I felt varying waves of emotions. To a certain degree, I knew where the quiz was going and what point it was trying to make. I felt slight resentment to be lumped into the North American, Caucasian, English-Speaking, Christian majority that easily answers true to most of the questions.

I resented the quiz-makers for pointing out that my life has been largely free of stereotypes, prejudice or mistreatment. I cringed at the implication that I somehow perpetuate these things, or at least take my ‘status’ for granted. Justified, I thought about the tax return forms and university applications that give the choices for race: Pacific Islander, Native, African American, Latino, Caucasian. There, I thought, I too am categorized with little concern for the significant ethnic differences ‘Caucasian’ could encompass.

At the same time, I felt guilty. My Barbie’s had blue eyes and blonde hair like mine. I have never had to look twice for ‘nude’ coloured stockings to match my skin tone. Most people can spell my name, have heard of my country of origin and can understand me when I speak English. Until at least high school, it didn’t even occur to me that this might not be the case for others. I feel uncomfortable thinking that I have in some way contributed to making others feel out of place, maybe even just by being white. I want to apologize. As strange as it sounds, I almost want to be less privileged.

In class, we began to discuss what it was like to have more than 25 answers of ‘true’. Or less than 15. The results were largely predictable with visible minorities reporting many times they were singled out, worried, confused, or underrepresented. Tentatively, I raised my hand and shared that I sometimes feel guilty. To my surprise, a classmate responded that asking good questions and growing in understanding would be more helpful to her (as a member of a minority culture) than me feeling guilty.

I’ve been considering this: that it would be more helpful if I sought to understand.

This brings me to another emotion that was vying for my attention during the test: a slight feeling of camaraderie. In a small, small way, I am growing in understanding. Marrying a man from India and being part of an intercultural marriage has put me in a small minority worldwide. A small example, which didn’t actually bother me, is that the gift bags and wedding cards we received depicting brides and grooms who were both blushing Caucasians. It didn’t hurt my feelings, but I noticed. I think that even noticing, for someone in the majority culture, is a big part of understanding.

Traveling overseas with Varun and visiting his family in India has given me legitimate opportunities to be the minority. Stares and gawking from curious onlookers, signs I can’t read, a head of hair that sticks out in a crowd of thousands: all are reminders to me that I am not one of ‘them’. As I struggle to learn Hindi and embrace Indian culture, I am reminded of the most basic fact of interracial relations: no matter how Indian I try to be, I will always appear white.

In truth, I will likely never become ‘very Indian’. But this is an important realization as it gives me insight into how my Canadian friends feel who were born and raised in Canada, but have Chinese features and appear ‘foreign’. Or how Varun felt when someone said upon meeting him, ‘Oh you’re from India? You speak English very well!’. Despite holding a degree from a Canadian university, marrying and living with an American, and excelling in a professional career in Ontario, to the casual onlooker, Varun might as well be fresh off the boat.

For better or for worse, being in an intercultural marriage has put me on the path toward understanding. When jokes begin or pop culture references surface, I glance at Varun to see if he’s tracking with the conversation. I have grown to realize that not everyone in a crowded room might be familiar with Western culture, and I seek to act as a liaison with grace and dignity.

This quiz did make me realize, however, that I still have a long way to go. Despite the small moments of understanding that I have had, I have not lived my life as the minority. If I am to continue to grow in compassion, I need to humbly listen to the experiences of others.

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14 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Vanessa Strickland (@vanster)
    Oct 11, 2012 @ 09:14:46

    Hey Amelia,
    This is a great post and I too, have felt “guilty” at how privileged my upbringing was, despite living in an extremely multicultural city and often being a minority in my public school classes – especially the younger grades.
    Living now in a country where I do NOT fit in and being white carries a certain stigma makes me uncomfortable on an almost daily basis and continues to reveal to me that I don’t belong here. No matter how long I live here, whether I learn to speak their language or cook local food, I don’t look like the average person here and would never be mistaken for an Ugandan.
    It’s a good reminder for me that when I go back to Canada, there will be thousands of people who feel the exact same way about Canada as I do about Uganda.

    Reply

    • Amelia
      Oct 11, 2012 @ 10:47:55

      Thanks for sharing :-) I can imagine it is frustrating to always be seen as a foreigner, even after living there for a few years. It’s such a neat experience to have; and like you said, a great learning opportunity!
      Thanks for stopping by!

      Reply

  2. American Punjaban PI
    Oct 11, 2012 @ 12:32:29

    First I want to say thank you for terming this post “racial privilege” instead of white privilege. My view of this issue is vastly different from most. In the US where we used to be predominantly white then the term “white privilege” may have seemed to fit. But white is really the wrong word to use. It completely discredits white minorities who struggled coming into this country as not all white people were trusted and given these benefits everyone speaks so generally of. Maybe that happens now, but it has not always been the case and any history book would tell you so. I’m speaking of the Irish, Jewish, German and Scottish who were obviously white but did not enjoy those same privileges and sometimes still don’t. Regardless of their skin color, they are still distinguishable by their bone structure, accent, etc. It’s for their benefit that I personally feel “white privilege” is an ugly term.

    With all that being said, I am not of the white privilege genepool. My family was not in this country during the time of the slaves, etc. It does anger me to be put into this group because despite the fact that both I and my mother were born in this country, I have not experienced the same sense of privilege that most would expect. I took the time to really think about your questions and answer them based on my life. (It wasn’t easy, I come from a racially mixed family.)

    I answered based on my life here in the US (where I lived in 6 different states total) and while in India. Question 1 was particularly hard for my US answers. I am white but there are no posters of Germans available. Most of them are of African American or Latina pop stars with a few Justin Beiber’s thrown in. So I answered yes, but that is not an all inclusive answer because I based it only on skin color and realistically, if Justin Beiber’s promoters are working hardest, they will make the most money. That’s a marketing and not a race issue. ;)

    In the end I wound up with 6 true and 6 false for the US. In India I had 2 true and 10 false. What I think these studies fail to recognize is that race is not the only issue or factor that results in these ‘privileges.’ I guarantee a tattooed white man would be treated just like the minorities these studies say are singled out in many instances. At least they have been treated that way everywhere I’ve ever lived.

    This leaves me with the view that this is not simply a “white” issue. I firmly believe it happens in every country where the race front of “privilege” would match the predominant color in the country. So once again I thank you for not throwing the term “white” into your title as this is not only a “white” issue at all.

    Reply

    • Amelia
      Oct 12, 2012 @ 08:40:56

      Hey American Punjabi!

      Thanks for stopping by and for sharing your insightful post :-) I agree with you about the term ‘racial privilege’ rather than ‘white’. In every culture and every country, some people are more privileged than others…to say ‘white’ privilege is a very limiting phrase. And you’re right, not all ‘white’ people had the same privilege. My paternal ancestors came from Ireland at the turn of the 20th century and had doors slammed in their faces and were barred from jobs by ‘Irish Need Not Apply’ Signs. It would be naive to think that every white person has the same experience!

      I think that’s so neat that you did it for life in the USA and in India. Very insightful! Thanks for your well-thought out comments!

      Reply

  3. American Punjaban PI
    Oct 11, 2012 @ 13:30:44

    Hey, I just wrote a post on my views of this and scheduled it for the 14th. With your permission, I would like to link to your blog post. Let me know if that’s not okay by emailing me at american punjaban pi at gmail.com (no spaces). I’m listing your post as the most sensible I’ve seen so far. :)

    Reply

  4. Erin
    Oct 12, 2012 @ 01:35:53

    My feelings on this are fairly similar to yours Amelia and I agree…being in an intercultural marriage does add a different dimension to the normal conversation/experience. I cannot change my upbringing, background or country of origin, but as someone who now lives in a country where I am clearly the minority and am married to someone who is in the majority, it opens new ways of understanding the whole thing.

    That said, even being the minority in another country is complicated because my background affords me to be received and understood in a different way here. It is a different kind of racial privilege that has less to do with the majority and more to do with how my country of origin is understood and perceived by people here.

    Reply

    • Amelia
      Oct 12, 2012 @ 08:42:07

      What a great point, Erin! You are so right, even being a minority in another culture depends on what minority you are. As you said, as a minority group you still experience racial privilege…this is a really important consideration that I hadn’t noticed. Thanks for your insight!

      Reply

  5. Me
    Oct 12, 2012 @ 08:24:40

    I feel different every time I visit my in-laws..!! …and I guess we are the same race..!! He and I, we’ve been brought up in completely different environments and completely different places (actually two extreme corners of the same country) and on most topics share completely different views.. We are as alien to each other’s family and surroundings as you may feel while in India..
    I don’t know if anyone; in as long as we’ve been married; has pronounced my name correctly at his place or his name correctly at mine :) !
    But its him nodding to me whenever my eyes search for reassurance and its him translating the meaning behind those sentences which comforts me that even though a minority I am privileged to share my life with him..!
    I guess we all need one thing acceptance.. and it’s the hope that we may be liked for what we are rather than who we are..

    Reply

    • Amelia
      Oct 12, 2012 @ 08:46:20

      Wow, this is so interesting! Thanks for sharing. It sounds like you are learning well to navigate the waters of an intercultural marriage and the challenges it brings :-)

      Reply

  6. Julie
    Oct 15, 2012 @ 15:54:21

    I know that it’s to a lesser extent, but my own pale skin, red hair, and freckles came to mind for a few of your questions too… I NEVER can get away with natural foundation or nude nylons. Even now if I find something close it obscures my freckles. Fifteen years ago, when I first would have been exposed to magazines (other than National Geographic or Reader’s Digest) you would never see a face with freckles. Now, I haven’t been discriminated against for my freckles since elementary school (when kids would find any reason they could, let’s be honest) but it is interesting that I still don’t feel that I can look at an ad or magazine and see someone who looks like me looking back.

    There are a lot of other factors that can go into that list of questions too including gender and income bracket, of course.

    Thanks for another thoughtful post, Amelia. Your class sounds like a good one!

    Reply

  7. Lyn
    Oct 17, 2012 @ 09:49:26

    I do think that being with people or in a relationship with a person from a (visible) minority helps to understand their struggles to some degree. And yes, traveling or being in a country where your color of skin makes you to a minority helps to understand the “sticking out” feeling. BUT as white German middle class female I will never know how it really feels to be black or Asian or latino in a predominantly white culture.

    @Erin
    My experience is the following: When being the minority I am still treated with respect and friendliness. It might be that those are just pretentious because being white I am also stereotyped as being rich (at least richer than most of the people in the countries I traveled to/lived in) but on the first look I am being treated well. The reason is that I am perceived as someone from a country which is seen – despite our national guilt – as exemplary for economic achievements. My presence is usually appreciated or at least raises curiosity.

    @vanster
    Having lived (just a few month) in West Africa and in India I understand the challenge you are describing. One feels as one wouldn´t belong. Not knowing your experiences, I still see the difference between me being white in a black/brown country and being brown/black in a white country. I nearly never experienced discrimination and I personally have more to deal with positive racism (but that´s another topic).

    @American Punjaban
    I disagree with you, I DO think that I am privileged as a white individual. Everywhere actually. And while it is true that the moment I spoke – while living is the US – I was judged due to my heavy accent and my Non-Americaness I was – until I first uttered a word – looked at as a white American and treated equally. I was able to pretend to “be one of them”. However, the treatment changed once I was with my African American (then) boyfriend. His color of skin “stained” mine.

    You discribe an immigrant experience. And of course being an immigrant is a stressful and usually maginalizing situation. And due to the lack of historical roots it might continue to be so. But discrimination in Western countries against people from another race, is higher than towards people who are same-race. And the Western world is white!

    Now as for sticking out in your own culture…when I was a teen I was quite overweight – and I stood out. There were mean comments and bad jokes on my account. I am well aware of all the prejudices which are attached to obesity – I lived them. But still, I would not compare them to what people of a different skin color have to go through. People didn´t switch seats when I sat in a train, the police didn´t check on my papers more frequently and shop keepers didn´t follow me around to make sure I wouldn´t steal from them. But all that happens to my African friends in Germany.

    And things like that happened to my black ex in his own culture. The country he was born and raised in. I might know how it feels to be stared at because I am white but I don´t know how it must feel to be alinated by your own country.

    To sum it up: I am not showing the race card here and make it responsible for all the bad things in this world (even though race is influencing us: our self-view and the view of “the other”) but I am absolutely convinced that being a member of the global majority culture (in power, not in number) blinds my personal understanding.

    Would be interesting to see what will happen with our understanding of race and minority/majority culture once the power structures changed and the West loses it´s influence… Maybe Iranians stop getting nose operations to have an “Europena look” and Manga Characters look, well, more Asian?

    Greetings,
    Lyn

    Reply

    • Amelia
      Oct 17, 2012 @ 10:04:38

      Hi Lyn,

      Thanks for stopping by :-) It was neat to read your insights and hear about your experience, especially having had a partners who were (in your words) ‘black’ or ‘brown’. I agree with you, it will be interesting to see how racial privileges and perceptions change as (if?) the West begins to lose power in the future. I think your experience in being ‘overweight’ brings up a great point–there are many different ways of feeling out of place or being discriminated against.

      Reply

    • American Punjaban
      Oct 18, 2012 @ 08:56:19

      Lyn, I’m sure you and I have experienced very different lives. You’re right, I won’t ever truly understand what it’s like to be African American, however I still think that this imbalance of privilege is not entirely related to skin color. I firmly believe that in the US white Americans are more privileged than other white races, India those native born are more privileged than NRI’s or foreigners. My main point is that most people seem to be insistent on this “white privilege” issue when in reality, every nation has this issue and in their nation it would be their skin color. So you can’t generally label it as “white privilege” and still be accurate. The term “racial privilege” is much more fitting.

      I’m not sure how it is in Germany but in the US white skinned people with red hair are still not equal and haven’t been since the Irish were being mistreated in our early, formative years. Immigrants from most countries, including other white countries, are not treated equally. There is still a general distrust for Russians whom we have been at war with, most white Americans don’t understand any other culture including British and German (both white).

      I just feel that the term “white privilege” wrongfully encompasses the white races that Americans do not treat equally. They stand out by their bone structure, the way they carry themselves and their accents and that prevents them from enjoying this so called privilege that the term implies they do.

      To further break it down, I openly admit to having a family full of hillbillies. My uncle looks just like the bearded guy from Duck Family Robinson (google for images) and couldn’t be more of a hippy on top of that. He is not readily welcomed into society, when he walks by people move to avoid him, he is not trusted by everyone as if he belongs here, etc. Granted my family has not been in this country but a few generations, he was born and raised here. He has a typical Southern American accent. He is still not granted these privileges and he’s only one example from just my family. Having grown up and seen this frequently I just cannot agree to the blanket term “white privilege” as being something all white people enjoy based on the color of their skin. It simply does not apply to the majority of my white-skinned life.

      Reply

      • Lyn
        Oct 22, 2012 @ 11:18:07

        @American Panjaban
        Here my 5 cent;)

        I never said that “the imbalance of privilige is […] entirely related to skin color”. But skin color is one major source for and of discrimination. Simply because it is one of the most visible facts to base judgement on.

        I am well aware that there is not only inter- but also intra-racial discrimination. Heritage, education, looks, gender all this (and much, much more) are things on which individuals are being judged and stereotyped on. You are right when saying that a Russian immigrant isn´t treated like a WASP in the US, that he/she is likely to experience discrimination due to accent, behavior, style. It´s the same in Germany (without the WASP part). But my point is more general. Namely that a person with another color of skin will experience discrimination to another extent.

        I am absolutely convinced, that when the mentioned Russian immigrant and, lets say, a Haitian immigrant (who both share the same variables regarding gender, age, education, language skills, etc.) visit a shop/walking on the street/applying for a job – the person of Russian heritage will experience less open or overt discrimination ( http://www.stanford.edu/group/scspi/_media/pdf/Reference%20Media/Hersch_2008_Immigration.pdf). And THAT is for me part of the “white privilege”. That many white individuals won´t share this opinion is understandable. But what counts for me in this discussion is less the individual than general societal tendencies. I made a mistake by giving personal examples within this discussions!

        On a more global level: I don´t mind the term “racial privilege”. But again due to the experiences I made myself and I´ve seen with friends of mine and (most important!) summing up what reseach on the subject suggests it is the white people who are usually being welcomed abroad. While people who are having a darker skin tone are usually seen as a threat.

        Or in short: I agree to disagree!

        @Amelia
        I should have distinguished between “obese” and “overweight”, since the latter won´t lead to as much discrimination. I also think that the advantage of this source of discrimination is that one can actually change it (unless suffereing from a disease) – a fact that doesn´t make discrmination better, but at least gives the individual a choice.

        The “black” & “brown” thingy….:) I´m not the biggest fan of PC. It just leads to more inequality plus life becomes sooo hard and complicated when you really always have to think about not offending someone…

        Reply

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