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Appreciating Privilege

March 16, 2010

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, here in China. Last weekend a bunch of foreigners (mostly white folks, but not entirely) had a little parade and got drunk at the ex-pat bars that carry Guinness. I may actually try to track down one, myself, today (I am a quarter Irish . . .). When I tried to explain this particular holiday to some Chinese friends, they just summed it up with (in Chinese), "Oh, it’s a foreigner holiday."

And that’s basically what it is here. Just "Foreigner Day." Where all these ex-pats (no matter their actual nationality or ethnic affiliations) are "celebrating" the holiday as a sort of link back to the "Western" world. So it seems most appropriate on this special day to talk about privilege . . .

So here I am, this straight, mixed white-Chinese-American male living in Shanghai, China. (*1) I saved up my money for the last 6 years and quit (sort of) my teaching job back in the States to come here. Now I’m teaching English to Chinese kids at a pay-rate two times higher than what I got paid as a teacher in the States. Take the different cost-of-living into account, and I can work half the time I did Stateside and live with an increased quality of life.

I eat like a freaking king here. I hardly ever cook for myself. I can dress like crap, leave my hair uncombed and unkempt, and walk into pretty much any restaurant whatsoever and have them not only allow me in, but give me good service because they assume I can pay for it. (*2)

If I’m wandering around the city, and nature calls my way, I don’t have to find a messy public restroom – I can just wander into any fancy hotel and use their bathroom without harassment because it’s perfectly reasonable for them to assume that I’m a paying customer (although I am most definitely not).

I mostly take the bus and subway, but any time – if I felt so inclined – I could get a cab all the way across town and be able to afford it.

If I wanted to, I could gain the interest of any number of attractive women (far more attractive than I am, myself) simply because I represent possible money, power, and a ticket to the States.

And I’m a freaking teacher. I dress in baggy pants and t-shirts – not suits or designer labels. A large proportion of the people here have much more money and fancy stuff than I do. And yet I get to carry around all the privilege.

It’s great!

Really. I mean that. I get a kick out of all of it. I definitely appreciate it. How can I possibly complain?

I stand out here, as well, of course. I get mildly hostile stares (sometimes). I often have trouble communicating. I don’t fully feel “accepted” or part of the community. Sure, sure.

But let’s compare all of this to my life in the U.S.A.:

Back in the States? I go to a hardware store with a friend, dressed as I am here (probably a little more kept-up in appearance), and the manager follows me around the store, eventually confronting me and asking if I intend to buy anything. (*3)

In the States? I work 50 to 60 hour work weeks, busting my ass as a teacher, and I get paid a fraction above poverty-line wages. (*4) When certain groups of people find out what I do for a living, they immediately lose interest, or try to find out what I really want to do, as a career. The kids I teach (so-called “at-risk” kids in poverty) make fun of the car I drive (that’s kind of funny to me, though).

In the States, the few times I get to go to a fancy restaurant, I get stares and the overwhelming feeling that I just don’t belong there.

I stand out in the States. I get mildly hostile, questioning stares (often). I have trouble communicating and being understood. I don’t fully feel “accepted” or part of the community.

And even then, I always feel lucky and blessed to have it so good. Because I still live (mostly) as I want to – with all sorts of great opportunities, privileges, and abilities.

Hmmm . . .

So how does being an “other” in China (or any other foreign country – I lived for a year and a half in Tanzania, too) really compare to being “other” in the States?

In terms of standing out, feeling a little awkward – not so different. Well, actually – it’s certainly much less negative out here. Nice to have people assume that I am capable of doing things, instead of the other way around. So I guess it’s better.

And, either way, the huge difference is that I chose for it to be this way here in China. I came here to take advantage of an opportunity. Not to escape oppression or for safety for myself or family. Not to climb out of poverty or to try to improve a difficult life. I came here to take advantage of an opportunity – to learn and grow and connect to part of my blood.

Because I can. Because I have the privilege of doing so. Because I can get a visa and afford the ticket and then – easily – find a job out here.

And once I do those things and am really living out here? The privileges just keep piling on (like the ones listed at the beginning of this article, but many more, besides). I get to live a life so very different from that which I can live in the States. The burden and weight of being “other” just doesn’t really apply here – because I asked for it. I became this version of “other” on purpose – because I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to do so. And if it starts to get to me? I have the privilege of leaving it behind pretty much any time I want. No life-time of weight to bear if I don’t want to.

So what do I do when white folks tell me that they “know what it’s like” to be a racial minority in the States because of their time abroad? I try not to laugh. Or choke. Or scream.

Because – no. No you don’t. Not even close. (*5)

The only way that living abroad can possibly connect us, in terms of understanding a different racial experience, is in a way completely opposite to how you think.

Because now, from my time living abroad, I can kind of better understand what it’s like to be white in the U.S. And it’s kind of fantastic.

Really. Here I experience the benefits (and frustrations) of everyone assuming I have money or an easy life experience, simply because of my race. I get to taste the privilege of positive assumptions about my power or capabilities. My attractiveness as a romantic partner is enhanced. It’s easier for me to get jobs over equally-qualified “other” candidates.

And sure, I’m not a numerical majority here, but if I want to be surrounded by “people like me” (in this case, foreigners), there are plenty of bars, restaurants, and whole neighborhoods I can go to within a 20-minute taxi ride to get that (compared to in the States, where there is literally nowhere I can go for that, in a public space).

So, please, don’t insult the intelligence and invalidate the experiences of racial minorities in the U.S. by claiming that it is anything at all like a white U.S. expat living abroad. Because it isn’t. Living abroad is an amazing, full-frills vacation, in comparison. (*6)

On the other hand, getting to experience this privilege is wonderful. It’s liberating. And I fully appreciate it and will not take it for granted. I will take full advantage (as long as it is not negatively affecting other people, especially those whose country I am visiting).

Because there’s nothing wrong, inherently, with having privilege. It’s not my fault I’m so privileged out here. However, the only reason I can carry this privilege is because of the existence of injustice. And if I am going to carry the benefits of injustice, I best fully acknowledge that privilege and be very careful in how I use it here. (*7)

And that’s the key. I can live with privilege – love it and appreciate it – but I have to be mindful of it and aware that it is most definitely a dangerous tool. Privilege is nuclear fission – capable of making my life so much better and easier, and just as capable of destroying other lives beyond repair. It’s silly to needlessly lament my own privilege or try to hide it – but I have to make sure to use it for uplift every chance I get. I’ll take a privileged "vacation" across the world, but then it’s my duty to take advantage of this time to learn and increase my understanding, so I can reduce injustice and – ultimately – give up my privilege.

Having privilege is having the option to not do anything – which is kind of cool. But true justice is choosing to forgo that option and using privilege (and, again, giving it up) to level the field. Anything else is oppression.

And that’s the ever-so-hard part – letting the privilege go. Because I can easily argue that I deserve this. For all the B.S. I put up with in the States, I deserve this break from it all. I worked hard. I earned it. I lifted myself up, overcame obstacles, bla bla bla.

But the fact remains – every time I take advantage of this privilege ("earned" or not), I’m taking advantage of somebody else getting a boot pushed right into their back, knocking them flat to the ground. Somebody who worked just as hard (probably harder) and deserve it more than I do. But "those are the breaks," right? Nope. That’s privilege and injustice.

And there’s the balance. Always fight for justice, doing what you can to reduce your privilege to give others a taste. But while I have a little bit? Well, I’m not going to take it for granted, that’s for sure. I’m going to revel in having a bit of the burden of race taken from my shoulders for a little while; enjoy the reduced stress. I’m going to appreciate it.

Because we all should. Acknowledge it and live it up. Eat well and smile. Sleep better and live lighter. And then go do something. (*8)

(*1) Although most people don’t think I’m white out here, that’s more or less the treatment I get. Darker foreigners would have a somewhat different experience, I’m sure.

(*2) In relative terms, "service" isn’t exactly the same here, culturally, as in the States.

(*3) Yup, true story. A hardware store. I was trying to buy sandpaper and a screw driver.

(*4) Also a true story. It’s a “non-profit” thing, I guess. But I should say I also get solid benefits, and since I’m single with no family, I’m doing okay.

(*5) I’m talking about U.S. citizens here, of course. The exception I can come up with would be a white person who came from poverty and moved to a foreign country and had to work their way up from scratch – maybe picking up garbage and sleeping on the floor for a few years – in an attempt to improve their lot in life.

(*6) And I mean that almost literally, considering how I get to live out here.

(*7) Worthy of another post, but this is largely why I’m very hesitant to get involved in any romantic relationships out here, because of the very pronounced power dynamics and privilege imbalance.

(*8) And I mean "do something about injustice" here – not just "go out to a nice restaurant dressed like crap" like I’m about to do . . .

** Regarding the image – the CVT is in no way affiliated with Moon Publishing or the authors of the book pictured. Just seemed appropriate for this post (and incidentally a book I read before coming here that mostly assumed whiteness for its readers). **

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One comment

  1. I only just read this. And I gotta say…thank you. thank you. Thank you. Thank you. and so on and so forth. thank you. Gosh, I could smother you with kisses…well, actually, okay, that would be kinda inappropriate, but you get the gist 😉

    What you said was something I wanted to say…but I just couldn’t. Not in the way you did.

    So what do I do when white folks tell me that they “know what it’s like” to be a racial minority in the States because of their time abroad? I try not to laugh. Or choke. Or scream.

    I almost screamed today because…the illusion that they understand what it’s like being a minority can contribute to even tension in relationships and it’s just heartbreaking.

    If I wanted to, I could gain the interest of any number of attractive women (far more attractive than I am, myself) simply because I represent possible money, power, and a ticket to the States.

    I love hearing that someone would actually decide not to abuse this privilege. There’s also ‘status’ attached to that. And just the whole, ‘white/Western as desirable’. Being white or Western is like being a celebrity where ppl just like you, regardless, sometimes. Cultural capital, and not just financial capital.

    Btw, this issue about using white/western cultural capital to attract local women…I just hate it with my guts. It just really, really gets to me because it can happen in such subtle ways, even with western men who are very much into the local culture and think they’re very open minded. And the men don’t even realize what they’re doing, or choose not to realize it. It just jabs like a knife in my guts when i hear about it.



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