If You Don’t Believe In White Privilege, I Envy You
An older man tried to steal something from me recently.
It was a stool I had bought for my son, so he could watch the Mardi Gras parade in a large crowd -- a stupid $10 stool.
When my kid was momentarily off the stool, the man picked it up and took it from right in front of me, despite me repeatedly saying, “That is mine.”
His response was to put his hand up to my face to silence me, and then he walked away with my property. This elderly, white man thought I was lying.
A kerfuffle ensued, resulting in me, a 155cm brown woman, running after him. Finally, a jolly (white) Scottish dude in a kilt stepped in and told the man the stool was in fact mine, as he’d been standing near us.
And do you know what the thief did? He believed him. He placed the stool at the Scottish man’s feet, and walked away.
Not even a glance to me. And certainly, no word of apology.
Was this a sexist/generational thing? Perhaps. But that wasn’t my immediate assumption.
In that moment, I looked at these two white men and thought, this is what it feels like to watch white privilege in action. And this is what it feels like to not have white privilege.
If you think I’m being sensitive, overreacting, or that it’s not about race, I envy that. I envy that your experience in life doesn’t make you wonder is it me? This guy may have acted like that to a white woman; but the fact is, I’m not white, I’m brown. I’m not just a woman; I’m a Woman of Colour.
So, in my mind, the question was there: did that happen because I’m not white? Did that happen because of who I am?
If you don’t believe in white privilege, you won’t understand that.
When something strange, or bad, happens to you, it doesn’t cross your mind that you’ve been treated in a certain way because of your skin colour. And for some people, like the would-be thief, it means you can exist and behave without thinking about your skin colour.
This is certainly not the case for non-white people; we don’t have that luxury, because just by our appearance, we are judged as not belonging, and hence not equal. There is constant messaging in this society that non-white people are ‘others’. Even my need to describe myself as a woman of colour to tell you I’m not white, infers that being white is the default position.
That is a privileged position to be in; and if you can’t recognise that, I envy you, because it’s a privilege so inherent in your life, you’re not even aware of it.
It’s one of the reasons why I’m glad my son is white, and not brown like me. He will grow up with a certain peace of mind, and sense of belonging and, yes, power, that I’ve never had; even though I was born here.
Privilege gave you the confidence to climb Uluru in the final days and hours before it become illegal, just because you could.
White privilege gives you the confidence to compare a star football player to a gorilla, or just be a generally offensive douchebag in a public forum, and not have to worry about the consequences; because if there are any, they will be fleeting.
You will not only get to keep your jobs, but still be paid millions for being some of the most high-profile voices in the country, and you know it.
It’s a luxury I don’t have as a woman of colour in the media -- and not just because I’m not a celebrity. When I’ve previously written about race, for example, I’ve felt the need to assure the reader that I’m one of them, first -- as Aussie as they come. Jimmy Barnes is my idol, and Bundy and Coke is my drink.
I need to make it clear that my loyalty is solid… so I’m not treated like Yassmin Abdel-Magied. Although, after this story, I expect that might be coming.
My first experience with outright racism was when I was 15, when a man on the bus told me to move to the back because that’s where “blacks” belonged. I laughed in his face. But also in that moment, I changed. I suddenly became aware that whilst I might not feel different, others don’t necessarily see it the same way.
No matter how much I rightfully belong, I’m still ‘different’.
Over the years, there have been times I was complimented on how well I spoke English, and told “you sound so Australian on the phone".
Airport security makes me anxious, because I’m always stopped. Travelling with my white husband, he would sail through, while I was questioned.
I’m also regularly questioned about my relationship with my son, because we don’t look like what other people expect mothers and sons to look like. There was the time I lost him in a shop, when he was two years old, and they wouldn’t give him to me.
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“This child is not yours,” I was told. “He doesn’t look like you.”
Another time, he flew off a flying fox. I was consoling him in the dirt when a man came up to ask him directly, “Where’s mummy? Do you want me to find your mum?”
There was also the time when we were checking in on an international flight and despite our passports, the airline person insisted on calling her supervisor right in front of us and explaining her concern that we didn’t look like mother and son. Our difference in skin colour was enough to arouse her suspicions.
Yes, on the scale of racism, my experiences barely register. But they register enough to make me think about my skin more than I should, which constantly reinforces the idea to me that I am not the same as a white person.
If you’ve never had experiences where your identity, and your right to be where you are, is questioned -- that is white privilege, and you are very lucky. If you’ve never had to explain or excuse your ‘otherness’, because you don’t have any, that is white privilege.
It’s something ‘people of colour’, that is, people who are not white, must think about all the time. I’d be grateful if when you’re next dealing with us, your privilege, and our experience, is something you keep in mind.