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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Italian Heritage Week

This week is self-proclaimed Italian Heritage week in the Rana Household. I know, it’s a perfectly inspiring name. (Feel free to give me a better suggestion!). When my Grandma passed away this Spring, I spent hours with my sister and my Mom sorting through Grandma’s belongings, reminiscing, and digging through artifacts of an 89 year life. Having been born and raised in Sicily, Italy, my Grandma and her family came by boat to New York City 78 years ago.

Steamship ticket from the journey to America

Grandma had the privilege of witnessing the majority of the 20th century, lived through WWII, saw the end of segregation, had an email address and eventually owned a cellphone. Having buried her husband and two daughters, she poured all of her love into her brother’s family and her daughter’s family. She spoiled us with homemade tomato sauce and meatballs, trips to TCBY and presents from travels.

Not wanting to lose my Italian heritage with the death of my Nonna, I have instituted Italian Heritage Week chez Rana. Why ‘week’, you ask? As I’ve mentioned, we’re not so good with the traditions and schedules. Somehow, ‘week’ sounded much more doable than ‘day’. So, for our first annual Italian Bonanza, I made homemade tomato sauce (the recipe Grandma taught me when I was old enough to help stir), pizzaiola (meat cooked in tomato sauce) and 1 kg of spaghettini. (I too questioned whether it was moral to make 1 kg of pasta. My love for tomato covered carbs won out).

Proof of a delicious dinner.

Claiming a whole week for my Italian heritage ending up being a great idea. This means there’s very little pressure for a Day of Awesomeness, and we can enjoy pasta for supper multiple evenings. And I get to defrost another tub of cannoli filling. WIN.

What about you: how do you celebrate your heritage? Do you have a favourite family recipe? What have your grandparents taught you that you don’t want to forget?

Love and Dessert

I love dessert. Whenever I’m invited to a friend’s house for supper, I ask what I can bring. Partly because Mama raised me right, and partly because by offering I believe can ensure that dessert will be served.

As kids, my siblings and I found countless ways to ingest sugar. On summer nights we’d slurp down “Mud” (mint chocolate chip milkshakes with oreos), and on Snow Days we’d steal piping hot chocolate chip cookies off of the cooling rack.

Upon meeting Varun, my ideas about dessert were challenged. Instead of cookies or cake, traditionally, Indians eat brightly coloured “sweets”: laddus, jalebi, gulab jammun–just to name a few.

Laddus

The first time I ate laddu’s, the small round sugary balls reminded me of donut holes (or Tim Bits, for my Canadian friends). As such, I popped an entire one into my mouth. OHMAGOSH. These things are sugar bombs. It now takes me between 15-20 nibbles to work my way through one, along with a generous cup of water.

This is where it gets ironic: I find most Indian sweets too sweet. And Varun finds many (or most) Western Desserts too sweet. Sometimes I feel this may be a cosmic prank. And sometimes we find ourselves in serious dessert limbo.

Jalebi (fried, sugary syrup in super cool, squiggly patterns)

I’m particularly fond of a Sicilian dessert that I grew up on: cannoli. It’s a sweet, crunchy pastry shell filled with creamy and sugary ricotta-based filling. YUM. Before we went to Maine, my Mom went to her favorite bakery in Brooklyn to load up on cannoli.

Mom: Should I bring you some?

Me: YES! But please get extra filling. Because they always cheap out on you on the filling and no one actually wants the shell.

Mom: Okay. I’ll ask for extra filling.

Me: But seriously. However much she tells you, even after you ask for extra, get more. Unless you need both hands to carry it out of the store, you didn’t get enough.

Mom: Haha, okay! Oh! I can freeze some so you’ll even have leftovers to take to Canada.

(You see, of course, why I love my Mother. And why I love dessert.)

Guess who brought me 4 quarts (3.78 L) of cannoli cream? YUP. That’s right, my Mom. I am now the proud owner of I was the proud owner of 4 quarts of cannoli cream. Oh what creamy deliciousness I have enjoyed. There’s just one glitch: Varun, it seems, finds cannoli too sweet. (!!!). Yesterday, as we snuggled in to watch the final episode of Downton Abbey (I told you I’d get him to love it. He was simply addicted!!) I made myself a cannoli. Like any true addict, I decided it would taste better if someone else had one too (“One can’t hurt…”). Varun was adamant, no cannoli. But yes dessert. I found my last pasta di mandorla. He smelled the almond through the wrapping and grabbed at it. I grabbed back. We laughed. (We’re not real grown-ups, mind you)

Me: Okay, Varun. You can have this cookie. But I have to tell you something.

Varun: (Laughing) Um, okay.

Me: This cookie is very special. It’s from a special bakery in Sicily. My family got my brother in law to send some when he was there. They are very good and it’s my last one and it’s almond (this is Varun’s key word, as he [wrongly] believes that all desserts are better with nuts) AND-

Varun: And it’s from Grandma? OHMAGOSH I can’t eat your Last Cookie From Grandma.

Me: Yes! Yes it is! And you can! That’s why I’m telling you because it’s so delicious and so special!

(Varun tastes a bite)

Varun: This is so good. (Munching) When can we buy our plane tickets to Italy?

The lesson here is, if you love someone very much, you can work through all kinds of differences, even over dessert.

(And in case you thought it’s just my Mom and I who have a dessert problem…)

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