My Experience in Understanding White Privilege

“Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. The grave will supply plenty of time for silence.” –Christopher Hitchens

In light of the recent Ferguson protests, I wanted to talk about white privilege. This isn’t about blaming or ranting, but rather sharing my experience with it and my own personal understanding; sharing my story and encouraging people to examine their own lives, because there was a lot I didn’t realize or fully understand until I came to Africa.

I was very privileged growing up. I grew up in an affluent suburb of Chicago. I had a family that cared about me and accepted me for who I was. I never had to worry about money as a child, and even if my parents were worried about money, they knew they could work it out. I identified as heterosexual and comfortable in my own body, and did not show signs of physical or mental illnesses affecting how people saw me. I had a fantastic education in primary and secondary school where I was able to learn how to use technology as well as take jewelry and filmmaking classes. I also went on to a great, albeit expensive, university and was able to finance it through scholarships, loans, and the help of my parents. Because of my excellent education, I was able to find jobs doing what I wanted to do in life—teaching—but abroad in places that allowed me to travel and experience new cultures. To top it all off, I’m white.

I’ve had a lot of things going for me up until now in this point, all of these privileges, but I never really understood them until I came to Mozambique, even with my Social Justice education. I grew up around people who were more or less as privileged as I was. As much as my university tried to be diverse (and in more ways than just racially), most of us were your cookie-cutter white Americans from the Chicago suburbs. And that’s not to say by any means that I don’t value my time there, or that the people who went to IWU all fit the same personality-less mold or are all rich white suburbanites. People come from a variety of backgrounds with different influences in their lives, different interests, and different passions. However, you can’t deny that walking across the quad at my university that you saw at least a few people with the stereotypical “frat boy” mentality, the mentality of the ultimate privileged person.

IWU has a Social Justice focus—that our students are educated to strive for social justice. In some ways this did open my mind to inequalities in our society. We discussed things like institutionalized racism and how poverty is a cycle that traps people, especially those with less privilege. I got experience working with students and student teaching in low-income schools where I worked one-on-one with students who lived in trailer parks, students who couldn’t afford winter coats, students who would go to the McDonalds to beg instead of going home after school. These were such valuable experiences and opened my mind to the differences in the way others lived and those who were less fortunate than I was, but it didn’t really make me think about my own privilege except in how thankful I was for what I had. It took quite a bit, in fact, to come to this understanding about privilege, not just in my life and culture, but all over the world.

I first arrived in Mozambique on September 26, 2013. I spent two months living with a Mozambican family that was accustomed to Americans and being within close proximity to Americans who had ideas and opinions similar to my own. We spent a lot of our time learning and exploring, and were quite coddled by the Peace Corps. It actually wasn’t until I got to site that I started to see how my race affected how people interacted with me, acted around me, and gave me privilege over not just Mozambicans, but also my black fellow Americans.

One of our first days at site my roommate and I were carrying a basket full of things we had bought home (7km from town). A car stopped next to us and asked where we were going and offered to drive us. That experience has happened many times. People go out of their way to say hi to us on the street. People have offered to buy us things before, and everyone wants to be our friend. A class I was proctoring for exams stood up and cheered when I walked in. Why was I receiving this reaction? I was white.

I didn’t actually think too much about it until reading a colleague’s blog. This colleague was an African American, and was talking about how people rarely stopped on the highway to give him boleias (rides) because he was black. Maybe they thought he was Mozambican, maybe they just didn’t trust black people, maybe he wasn’t seen a novelty foreigner from his looks and so they had no overwhelming reason to stop and pick him up. That really opened my eyes: here people were voluntarily stopping for me and driving out of their way to take me home.   All because of how I looked. They did not do the same courtesy for the Mozambican woman carrying 30 pounds of baggage on her head. People didn’t go out of their way to greet the beautiful young Mozambican woman walking down the street. It was because I was white and the stereotypes and privilege associated with that.

One time my roommate and I were standing in line at the train station waiting to buy tickets. We had been standing for an hour and moved almost nowhere from the end of the line. Next thing we knew we were being called into the back room where they sat us down in the air conditioning and sent someone to get our tickets. Another time coming back from Malawi, we were riding in an open-back chapa back to Cuamba. The driver pulled over about 50km in the bush and demanded that everyone pay. When we said we were uncomfortable with that, he told us that was fine. “You are white. I know you will pay. You won’t jump off and run like the black man,” he said. I can’t count the number of men who have asked me to marry them or told me they loved me, and when I asked why said it was because I was white. Even without realizing exactly why, these people realized that it is better to be white in our world and may even have some stereotypes of their own coloring their view of others.

Another good example of privilege in society here comes into play in the local language, Emakhuwa. In Emakhuwa, Mukunha means white person. It is not derogatory, but rather a form of identifying someone with light skin who appears to be a foreigner. Many people exclaim “Mukunha ola!” when I walk down the street- there’s the white person! It’s counterpart, Yoripa, which means black person, however, is seen as offensive and is not a word you should call someone. If I want to identify someone here by their looks, it is much more polite to say “Macua”, identifying them by their tribe instead of their race. It’s something I don’t really understand, but I know the rules.

When I thought about the effect of white privilege in our society, I was quite surprised I hadn’t noticed it and thought about it more. [White] people tend to get defensive talking about privilege, thinking they are being accused of being racist or their rights are being threatened. It shocks me that some people won’t admit racism still exists, or that privilege is made up. People try to back up their opinions with data, refusing to see that data itself can be flawed. Take for example the person who argued that more black people were criminals because there are more African-American arrests in the United States than other races, but ignores that African-Americans are unfairly persecuted because of the stereotype that they are criminals and more likely to be up to no good, which in turn perpetuates the stereotype and continues this cycle. Or the fact that 75% of cops in the U.S. are white, and people tend to have more sympathy for those that look like them, meaning that they are more likely to let a white teenager go for a crime but get a black teenager in trouble for the same crime. This by no means means that all cops are terrible people or that all white people are racist, but rather brings attention to the fact that we all unconsciously stereotype people based on how they look and that the stereotypes of blacks and whites, as well as other races are all very different. It also doesn’t mean we choose to have these stereotypes, but they are a product of the media we are exposed to throughout our lives, whether that be movies and television or the news. Nothing is objective, we need to recognize that.

Again, I’m not trying to call out whites for being racist or bad people or say that they should not have gotten the privileges they did. People tend to fear the loss of their privileges, which is a big reason why people are denying that racism is a problem in our society. Equality in no way means you should not have gotten the privileges you did, but rather means that everyone deserves those same privileges, whether it be a good education, justice in our criminal system, or a ride to town. This is not a fault of individuals, but rather a problem of our society to work on fixing, and one we should embrace rather than fear.

Despite being a minority in Mozambique, I have no idea what it means to be a less-privileged person in America. I am privileged in that my “minority” characteristic is seen as positive and gives me many advantages in life. I will never really understand how it feels to be an African-American, or to have institutionalized racism against me, such as laws that target me unfairly; communities where my teachers, doctors, and police officers are a different race than I am; not seeing my own race represented in my government; and being stereotyped negatively at first glance among so many other things. Despite not fully understanding, I am choosing to notice the racism that has become a part of our society and recognize that equal rights does not impinge upon my own, to recognize that everyone deserves the privileges I have had and that we are all human beings. Whatever you believe should have been the result in the Michael Brown case, you should at least agree that people deserve equal rights and opportunities, but that is not the case at the moment. At least recognize that there is a problem in our society, and although it will take time to fix and will probably never be perfect (because humans in themselves are flawed), each and every individual affects how our society progresses and changes. It is by recognizing and acknowledging problems, brainstorming solutions, promoting discussion and education, and giving equal representation to all people that we can become a greater people.

To end with a quote by the wonderful J.K. Rowling: “We’re all human, aren’t we? Every human life is worth the same, and worth saving.”

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