Archive for March 17th, 2009

Privilege

Posted on March 17, 2009. Filed under: Culture, Health, Philosophy |

I am a person of Privilege and Culture. I grew up with certain advantages many in my country do not enjoy. Like other sheltered and entitled people, I didn’t realize there was anything different about me until in my late teens. I just thought everyone was like us, because that’s what I knew.

You might not think my birthplace, San Francisco, California, would have such exclusive neighborhoods, but believe me, there are quite a few that are “special” in the way that mine was. I’ve been away from my childhood region for some years now, and I’m told, and I can observe on my increasingly rare visits, that the “demographics”—a word we didn’t even know back then—have been changing. I have mixed feelings about this, as many would. Who amongst us doesn’t like the comfort of what’s known; the familiarity of our childhood surroundings—at least if they were pleasant, which mine were.

Change can be tough to deal with, so when I’ve watched my old neighborhood change, I sometimes felt a bit queasy. I’ve changed now, too, though. I’m no longer the sheltered individual I was then. I’ve seen more of the world now, and interacted with even more of it through this blog you are reading. I think I can handle my childhood home becoming…even more culturally diverse and welcoming than it already was!

I’ve been reading quite a few articles about race/gender/nationality/orientation/etc., lately, and rather than flowing through and around my mental taste buds, they sit on the tongue of my brain and taste…not quite right. Among these were excellent posts from two blogbuds, Deirdra Kiai on the reluctant reality of minority group membership; and ellaella of From Scratch on cultural expectations that never were. Then, I played an adventure game I was really looking forward to. It was from a European developer whose first game I admired greatly, and this new game got a lot of good press for its design and story. The story didn’t work for me at all, though, as it used an American racist clichĂ© as its centerpiece. Making the strident point that “racism is bad” didn’t help. Why choose this theme at all?

You see, in the privileged bubble in which I lived, I was not a member of the largest ethnic group. Nor was I a minority. In my neighborhood, there were not enough of any one “kind” of people to make up a “majority” so I didn’t know there were millions of people who saw mostly those, day by day, who had features and colors just like theirs. I didn’t realize, until much later, that this made it difficult for those millions to stop seeing “other kinds” of people as “other”, just as it made it difficult for me to travel to a new neighborhood and see mostly people who’d sprung from the loins of immigrants of just a few northern European countries. It felt weird to me, seeing that, as if half the town had gone missing. It was incomplete; unnatural.

Now I know that most towns and cities in my country have different “demographics”; different mixes of “these” sorts of people and “those” sorts of people. Where I live now has different proportions, but that’s OK, at least it has proportions! I don’t think I could be happy in a town where 80% or more of the people looked as if they could be my cousins—but upon further thought, perhaps I could.

My particular set of cousins and close relatives includes those of British, German, Italian, Japanese, Jewish, Mexican and Serbian descent. Many of the marriages in my family would be considered “mixed” in some way by some portion of the American population, but they seem normal to me.

I’ve just really started to realize, over the past few years, how “un-normal” this is to so many. It feels very strange. I appear typically Caucasian, and am, for the most part, but because I look a way that’s thought of as a majority; sometimes people say things to me or in front of me they would never say to a person of “color”. This shocks and disappoints me. It amazes them when I tell them that as a child, I never gave a person’s race a second thought—really! We were a bunch of kids, on a city street, who played and attended school together. We celebrated each others’ ethnicities as human interest stories: “How does YOUR family celebrate _____?” or “Oh, poor you; having to go to Japanese school (or Hebrew, or several others) after regular school, when I can learn Spanish or German right in school!”

I took my Chinese best friend to German picnics with my family, and I went to New Year’s festivals with my friend’s family. The grandmother in the family didn’t speak much English, and was called “Po-Po” by them (an affectionate term for the maternal grandmother in Cantonese) so I called her Po-Po, too. I still remember saying “Hi, Po-Po!” and getting this weird look in return, as if to ask “Who’s this white child calling me Po-Po?”, but I didn’t care. Lots of us had some relative or other who didn’t speak English, or who had some kind of accent.

Now my country has a President who is “of color”. I, as do many, feel this is long overdue, and I celebrate that it is now possible. Still, I wonder that so many people, including even himself at times, must refer to him as “the first African American” President. Where does his mostly English mother fit into the scene? It seems strange to me, a person who grew up with many mixed-race children, not to acknowledge the totality of ones background, if one is going to talk about it at all.

I knew black/white children. I knew their parents; their siblings. Sometimes one looked more black; another more white. I knew a boy named “Michael Fitzgerald” who appeared to be 100% Chinese, and no, he wasn’t adopted, his mother’s genes won out in this case. My Spanish language teacher, a man named Robert MacKenzie (he wore his family tartan tie every single day!) was, ethnically, 100% Scottish, but he would admonish us in Cantonese to hurry up! (“fie-di-lah!”) because he’d been raised by his stepmother from Hong Kong. I finally became an ethnic minority myself when I lived in Hawaii for a year. I met most of my friends through the University, and nearly everyone was Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese or Filipino, not northern European, like me.

An American sports celebrity who also, apparently, has the “face” of an African American, Tiger Woods, has said on many occasions that he’s actually more Asian (Chinese and Thai) than anything else, and is disturbed when others don’t want to acknowledge that. I understand that people of a perceived minority are delighted to have a “face”; a “celebrity”; a “spokesperson” in high places formerly not accessible to those of their background. But I think we are in denial when we don’t want to celebrate how truly mixed-up (in the best way) we are!

I’m intrigued by how diverse the First Family actually is. In addition to the President himself, there is his sister, an Indonesian/English American, married to a Chinese American whose parents had emigrated to Canada from Malaysia. Now that’s my idea of a “normal American family”! 🙂

Yes, I am a person of class, culture, and privilege. Often people learn to outgrow the “perks” which come with that status; to get older, and wiser, and to see the bigger picture. Don’t expect that from me, though. I admit I’m an elitist; I am a snob. I intend to live in my sheltered bubble, which, by the way, now contains the Whole Wide World.

Peace; PĂ´maikai; Salaam; Shalom.

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