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 clichΓ© 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”! πŸ™‚

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; PΓ΄maikai; Salaam; Shalom.

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18 Responses to “Privilege”

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you sure lead a ‘colourful’ life! πŸ™‚ in malaysia, it’s not weird if you called somebody else’s grandma ‘po-po’. in our culture, we call our friends’ parents or anyone older ‘uncle’ or ‘auntie’, even though they are not our uncle or auntie! it’s just a mark of respect to someone older. we generally don’t call them mr/mrs (surname) though we could… and never by their first names! it would be too weird in our culture.

Very good post. I was very interested to hear your perspective on cultural diversity, since you come from a pretty diverse cultural background. It sounds a lot like my more romantic notion of American society, actually.

Around here, the vast majority is white (ninety something percent), although there are substantial minorities as well. Of course, just because someone is white doesn’t mean they’re all English. The area where I live is thankfully not very racist, although there certainly is racism.

Your comment about not acknowledging the totality of a person’s background reminded me a bit of the song “Fear of a Black Planet”, by Public Enemy. Do you know it? It’s not really what the song is about, it just reminded me.

Ah the wonders of seeing culture and culturalism for that which it is!

As an army brat I travelled the world when Dad was posted – and I do agree that travel broadens the mind. It should be mandatory in my view.

My family is a smorgasborg of different many races, religions and cultures too.

Good topic! I live in a town that is probably 90% or more white.
But the type of work I do, the people I meet or work around, I am the minority. Where 98% percent of them were are first or second generation immigrants. I love it. It has given me the opportunity to learn so many things. Cultures, history and best of all food! You would not believe how many men love to talk about food and share recipes!

No one seems to mind sharing their heritage and background. They celebrate it. I’ve never had anyone take offense when asking all kinds of questions.

It is typical to walk onto a job and be asked where you are from, many are shocked when I tell them how long my family has been here. It’s a normal question. But one thing I have noticed. When I am at other functions outside work, in a room full of predominately ‘white’ people with a few other people that are fairly new here (going by their accent or not having fully learned the english language) if I start asking questions as to where they are from (because it is hard to tell sometimes) I get these wide eyed stares from everyone, like they can’t believe I would point out their race or difference like that.

But for the most part of the night that person has sat alone looking as comfortable as a deer in headlights. What, they think I am being rude for asking questions, when all night they just avoided the person. That way they don’t have to feel uncomfortable. What is worse?

We are all the same, we are all people! Some of us might have different colours, beliefs, whatever. And most people are proud of who they are and where they come from. They don’t mind sharing stories and history.

Oh, but the stereo types…they are big in the skilled trades. I won’t share them here. I don’t want to offend. But most take it light-hearted.

About the links: The first one about the jokes. I do take offense. Because it does hurt peoples feelings. And what if that joke was about you? How would you feel?

And Ella’s. That was a great post! I love her flair and writing style too!

Sure, Muse, you are just such a snob!

“I intend to live in my sheltered bubble, which, by the way, now contains the Whole Wide World.”

I guess some forms of globalism are good! πŸ™‚ Like yours!

That was one really interesting insight into American mixed races. While we are at it, see this: http://exchanges.state.gov/multimedia/ovc_team.html

Wonderful post, ME. Got me thinking about the otherness the world imposes on us and the otherness we impose on ourselves. And there is also our own individual perspective on what feels “right”. When I lived in San Francisco for a couple of years, a diverse town in comparison to many, I hungered for the even more diverse faces and cultures of my beloved New York City. Go know.

Peace to you in all languages!

Ronnie Ann

My own years in San Francisco/Berkeley just came back in a rush. I loved the variety of peoples, the cultural mix. Ironically, my two big chunks of living prior to the Bay Area were Iowa (born and raised, one black family in town) and Liberia (including trips to villages where children never had seen a white woman).

As interesting to me today are issues of class. I chose to leave academia and a career with some status in order to varnish boats. The book about all this might be titled, “I Passed for Blue Collar”. There are divisions in this country I sometimes think run far deeper than those of race or gender, and they’re less easily seen.

And, as a part of a generation that is incredibly diverse and, as such, can’t comprehend racism, I must say that the time is now to move beyond diversity (at least racially ). Culturally, we all have everything to learn from each other, and that should be celebrated. But if we continue dividing ourselves by race, we’re never going to see racism fall – and this is why I am mystified by the amount of fawning over Obama being the first Black president (and maybe my youth has a lot to do with this).

Yes, I realize that it wasn’t possible before, but that doesn’t mean that we should regard him as “different” just because he’s black. After all, isn’t that essentially the same as what we used to do?

My take can be described as this: let’s transcend racial differences and embrace cultural ones.

(and, to shamelessly plug, I have the final post ever up at my blog. Check it out.)

Haha, thanks, sulz. That’s a nice custom. How do you determine when you are older, and entitled to be called “Auntie”? I guess you would call your parents’ friends Auntie and Uncle, or your friends’ parents? It’s interesting that you say “not Mr. or M(r)s.” The one person at my mother’s memorial service I still called Ms. ____, when I was well into “adulthood” by then was the mother of the friend I mentioned whose grandma I’d called Po-Po! πŸ™‚

Thank you, B0bby. It is my romanticized notion of American culture, too—I just used to think it really was like that! Interesting that you have mostly white people, but not necessarily English. I would not have guessed that. No, I had not heard the song before, so I looked it up on YouTube. It freaked me out a little bit! πŸ˜‰

I do know many colleges and such have “a year abroad” program, Will, and there is the Peace Corps, and other opportunities—but they take willingness, and in some cases, money. One really gets a different perspective traveling to other countries!

What a fascinating and long and wonderful comment, BD, thank you! You point out that there are other cultural differences to consider, too, such as economic status. I did not come from a “union” family, for instance, so I didn’t know much about those issues until I saw the film Norma Rae! I was also interested to read yours and others’ reactions to people at social events. I know I wouldn’t accept an invitation from someone I knew had “excluded” certain types of people, but I must have attend such functions because the hosts just didn’t have friends that were not like themselves. Something to think about! I appreciate that you took the time to read the posts I linked to. Both, I think, offer much insight. Whoo! And you read it here first folks: “BD admits globalism can be good!” πŸ˜›

Thanks, Poonam! I liked the video you shared. There is much diversity in sport and sports history, and the young man in the vid presented that very well! πŸ™‚

Thank you, Ronnie Ann. Yes, I imagine NYC is diverse in a different way. I think it’s a good thing to question ones values from time to time, and keeps what’s comfortable while being open to change as well. Thanks & to you as well! πŸ™‚

Ah, good old Berkeley! Thanks for reminding me, shoreacres! It’s one of the most educationally/culturally/politically diverse cities I’ve come across. We have one 8-block neighborhood in Tucson that is like a “mini-Berkeley”—it’s amazing how much hippie culture they manage to cram into that one little area. Wow, Iowa and Liberia! Can’t get much more contrast than with those! I would love to read your book of that title; you make an excellent point. The socio-economic divide is huge, and one wonders why, in this day and age.

Hey, leap! Thank you, I agree. It’s the divisions that don’t make sense to me, and they are largely self-imposed. If one imagines oneself to be from a “disadvantaged group” why not go out and mix with other kinds of people, and learn what works for them? When I was too young to know better, a mixed-race President would have been no big deal to me! “Yeah, whatever” would have been my opinion. I’d already experienced Class Presidents, City Boards of Supervisors, and Mayors of all different mixes and genders and preferences and things. I grew up on the heals of the events in the excellent film, Milk. To me, all this “first this; first that” business was old news. Alright, you shameless self-promoter, I’m off to read your post. πŸ˜›

That was a beautiful essay. And now, since you’ve opened up a little about yourself, I wonder now how
you look like, your age, etc.
Will you reveal that please even in private? πŸ™‚

muse, what an interesting post… and I had no idea you speak Cantonese… πŸ˜€

about Tiger Woods, wikipedia has it that he is a “Cablinasian”…

“this makes Woods himself one-quarter Chinese, one-quarter Thai, one-quarter African American, one-eighth Native American, and one-eighth Dutch. He refers to his ethnic make-up as β€œCablinasian” (a portmanteau he coined from Caucasian, Black, (American) Indian, and Asian)”

πŸ˜€

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiger_woods

now That’s what you’re talking about!

“Whoo! And you read it here first folks: β€œBD admits globalism can be good!”

Now, now, don’t go getting your hopes up too high with me. I’m a work in progress. LOL!
Did I ever laugh when I read that, Muse. πŸ™‚

Excellent post Muse!!! I have many a times wondered why the president was put forth as African American and most of what you have written here. One thing though… You are a snob?! Well, I think I have to go and read the definition of a snob now!!!!

Thank you very much, poch! As for your question, in a word: nope. One of the things I particularly enjoy about blogging is that it can go beyond all those sorts of personal details, and just explore ideas. I do appreciate your asking, though. πŸ™‚

Great to see you back in the blogosphere, walking!!! Haha, as for my Cantonese, in addition to what I’ve reported here, I just know a few choice words and phrases I picked up from my friends along the way. Not very useful for travel, unless I want to call everyone “Grandma”, wish them a “Happy New Year”, and then swear at them! πŸ˜› Oh that’s right! I’d forgotten Mr. Woods had coined a phrase to describe his ethnicity. Thanks for the link! I wonder what his children will call themselves? πŸ™‚

BD: :mrgreen: Well I could hardly resist, could I?, after what you had said. πŸ˜‰ I hope we’re all works in progress; it’s what make the journey interesting!

Oh, thank you, Apar. I t does seem that the President, as he gets more comfortable in his role, is acknowledging more and more of his background in public. I read that on St. Patrick’s Day, he mentioned that he and the visiting Irish PM both had family from the same county in Ireland. Aw, thanks! Sometimes, I think I’m sort of a “reverse snob”, which can be just as snobby. For example, I don’t have very much tolerance for intolerance. πŸ˜• πŸ˜‰

I meant to get back to you about this last night. The functions I was talking about is a bunch of people and family members regularly have gatherings at people’s different homes on the street or block. And it has recently, over the last 4 years had more homes developed. They generally invite everyone on the block. (More for the fact the people have been invited and would be less willing to call the police over the noise than that they actually want or expect them to show up)But this predominately white upper class area, thinks the new additions and building are bringing down the hood! I wish I could share more, but too many people I know, know who ‘thebeadden’ is and I don’t want to cause any animosity. So’ I’ll shut my yap.

I don’t come from a union family. Most in my family are small business owners, so they are not big on the idea of unions. LOL But I do have many public servant family members (government) who, of course, love the union and all the perks that go with it.

Thanks for coming back, BD. I respect your need for circumspection about people you know in “RL”. I think we all just have to make the best choice we can with the information we have; maybe take a risk now and then just for fun!
Unions are interesting organizations. There’s a lot to love about them, and how they’ve made working conditions better for many people. But then there’s the strong-armed tactics…hmmm, yet another choice to make! πŸ™‚

[…] written elsewhere about how grateful I am that I grew up in a multi-racial; multi-cultural community. I also grew up […]


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