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.

Toilet Paper Whoas

(The title of this post is 100% plagiarized from an email from my big brother, John.)

For some reason, I seem to have a lot of conversations about:

-using the washroom in developing countries

-(not) using toilet paper in developing countries

-squatty potties

-falling into sewage

I would like to think that everyone experiences this phenomenon. (If this is not the case, don’t burst my bubble.) On a related note, two things happened this week.

1. I received the following email from my brother who is currently living in Ecuador:

Hi Amelia, Have you ever had to put a coin into a Toilet paper dispenser? I know humans commonly dispense [it] in India, but even there, is it objectively rationed as a machine might? If so, do you have any recollection of how many squares come in a portion? There’s a blog topic swirling around my mind…is thurs. good for you to talk?

A blog topic swirling around in his mind–BAHAHA! Now you see where I get my creative genius and stunning wit.

Apparently, John had to purchase a package of toilet paper (for $1 USD).

Toilet paper packages, finger shown for scale

The contents of a dispensed toilet paper package: 12 squares.

John, as much as we feel for you and would strongly advise you to invest in a whole entire roll, we have one very important question: which direction do the toilets flush? Does it vary within the country depending on which side of the Equator you’re on? Please advise.

2. The second thing that happened was that we had our first small group/home church/Bible study of the year. For a warm-up, Varun and I decided to play Two Truths and A Lie, just to keep things holy. Here’s what I wrote:

-I have eaten rattlesnake

-I have fallen into sewage

-I have met Obama

Apparently, this caused serious confusion. Some people didn’t think I was brave enough to eat rattlesnake. Some people felt it unlikely that I’ve met Obama. And then there was my lovely friend C, who happily proclaimed, “But guys, think about it! If any of my friends is likely to have fallen in poo, it’s Amelia. She’s like a magnet to awful situations!”

Ummm…thanks? I struggled to keep a straight face as I laughed on the inside.

C was right: I am a bit of a catastrophe magnet, and I have fallen into poo. Like, submerged in it.

(GAG)

On to more polite conversation: have you ever had toilet paper rationed? If so, what was the given amount? Have you ever used a toilet paper dispenser? How much did it cost?

The Difference(s) Between Southern Virginia and Ontario

Sometimes, even going “home” to the USA can be confusing. Last week I went to Lynchburg, Virginia to be a bridesmaid in my dear friend Kristina’s wedding. A typical Northerner, I thought to myself, “Virginia. I’ve been there. Arlington, Washington, D.C.*, yup, I can do Virginia, I am American“.

It turns out Virginia is much bigger than I originally thought…

And then I spent the majority of the weekend experiencing culture shock. Because Lynchburg is something like the Deep South for this Pennsylvanian/Ontarian. Two things that kept surprising me the whole weekend were people’s southern accents (so lovable!), and how friendly everyone was–especially strangers, cashiers, etc. Seriously people: culture shock.

For example, on the first morning we headed out to breakfast at Cracker Barrel. If you don’t know about Cracker Barrel, get yourself to the US of A and have a taste of deliciousness. Anyway. I was trying to order apple struesel french toast (YUM!) and a cup of decaf tea.

Waitress: (In a southern accent) Okay, Love, what about you? Coffee?

Me: Actually, do you have decaf tea?

Waitress: Cold or hot, darling?

Me: Uhm. (Did we resolve the decaf issue? Are we talking about tea?)

Kristina’s Mom Who Is From the South: Amelia, do you want iced tea or hot tea?

Me: Oh. Hot tea. Yes. Hot. Can I have decaf?

Waitress: Why of course, darling!

As I sat bewildered by our exchange, Kristina’s Mom explained that the default is iced tea, so you have to specify. (Seriously, it’s morning and I’m ordering decaffeinated beverages, have mercy!)

The next day, at the rehearsal dinner, the groom proudly announced that his sister made the cake for dessert.

Me: What kind of cake did he say?

Bridesmaid from Florida: Cheerwine.

Me: What?

Bridesmaid from Florida: You know, cheerwine.

Me: I have no idea what that is.

Bridesmaid from Florida: You don’t know cheerwine? It’s like a cherry mountain dew.

Me: But it’s a cake?

Apparently, you use pop (soda in Virginia) called Cheerwine, to make a cake.

It must be, because in Canada, we’ve never heard of it…

Although I was skeptical (‘you use pop to make a cake?’) it was actually quite moist, sweet and cherry-y.

Cheerwine cake

In the midst of the large portion sizes and terms of endearment from strangers (‘love’, ‘honey’, ‘dear’, ‘sweetheart’–I almost didn’t notice Varun was absent!), we had an awesome time. The bride and groom were bursting with love, the food was delicious, the weather was perfect.

I was reminded this week how big and diverse the USA is. Who knew that just 12 hours south of Ontario is a land of Chick Fil A, sweet tea and friendly cashiers?

Driving through the hills of Virginia

*I realize D.C. isn’t VA, but it always ends up that my trips to DC include VA and MD…

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