I never thought I’d ever write a piece on White Privilege (with a capital W and P). Mostly, I had never really noticed it nor felt that I was given special privileges simply because (as you have probably already guessed) I am White. It’s true that I tentatively stood behind this whole equality thing but I never felt so disturbed by any lack of equality that I also felt so compelled to speak about it. Then, in a dark cosmic series of events in my own life and the world I left back home I suddenly became incredibly aware of my privilege and now I cannot stop obsessing over it.
I am a White female from a middle-class family. I am educated and I am mostly happy. I left the U.S. a year ago to travel through Central and South America and have found myself getting settled in Ecuador as I embark on the next phase of my very curious life. Only here in Ecuador, where injustices and inequality are still very much thriving, did I finally realize my own privilege.
As soon as I arrived here I had scores of people asking me to work for them. Somehow my native language and fancy degree and fair skin convinced these professionals that I am a qualified candidate. A candidate for what? It didn’t matter. I had strangers approach me to ask if I was interested in working for their X firm or Y school or Z program. It didn’t matter that I was a therapist by trade or that Spanish is only my second language. All of these opportunities sort of fell into my lap upon my arrival and I literally did nothing to deserve it. All that I did was exist in my own skin.
At first, I was elated. Just like every other time in my life I had a lot going for me right out of the gate. As I shared my exciting news with my local friends I slowly heard, one by one, how my friends were still jobless even after earning fancy graduate degrees and being bilingual. As I watched my friends struggle to find work—even as educated and bright as they are—I started to feel uncomfortable in this unwarranted privilege that I had. Still, I couldn’t quite understand it, both my feelings and the advantage. My privilege still exists here in this capacity but in a strange juxtaposition of how the locals view foreigners, I have also lost much of my privilege, as well.
After a couple months in Ecuador and with impossibly improved Spanish skills I have started to understand a lot more of the chaos around me. Men holler at my “White pussy” as I walk down the street (a phrase that I cannot un-hear) and women give me hard, knowing looks. Taxi drivers charge me double the price and vendors on the street avoid eye contact with me when I try to make a purchase. New acquaintances have asked me for money and I have been sexually assaulted—twice.
Before I paint the wrong picture about my new home I must say that this country and its people are warmer and happier than anywhere else I have visited. The picture I do want to paint, though, is that much of this behavior and treatment is directed at me simply because of my skin color.
Gringas, as we are known, are rumored to be easy in bed, rolling in cash, and incredibly weak-willed. The difference between this reputation and me is huge: I am, in fact, none of those things. So when these assumptions are thrust upon me every single day you better believe that they are felt. I haven’t grown angry over it because I am here mostly as a curious observer that is trying to absorb this new culture.
Instead, I sort of look around myself and wonder where all these assumptions have come from and why nobody bothers to ask me if they are indeed true. As I developed my group of friends it became a sort of running joke for us. I became the fancy White girl with loose morals and loads of money thank-you-very-much (only so hilarious because it’s the exact opposite!).
Then, as I grew comfortable with these stereotypes and more confident in the truth all hell seemed to break loose back home in the U.S. The recent killings of Alton Stirling and Philando Castile are not unlike the horror stories about Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Alton and Philando, however, seem to have turned into a tipping point for our country and people are finally crying out that enough-is-enough. It was my tipping point, too, as I found myself huddled on a chair in my kitchen while I watched the videos flood social media. I sobbed when I watched the video of Philando’s girlfriend accosting the system that killed her innocent boyfriend. My body was completely overwhelmed with grief yet my brain was overrun by a misplaced guilt. How had I not noticed any earlier just how absurd all of this is? How had I hidden so safely behind my ethnicity that I felt unmoved to stand behind others?
Now, this is not meant to be a political post. How to deal with these events and how to restructure our entire society is not really something I feel well equipped to do. What I can say, however, is that I have experienced White Privilege my entire life and only when that was taken away was I able to finally (and naively) understand even just a fraction of what inequality tastes like.
Privilege does not mean that things were always handed to me, unwarranted. It’s true that I’ve never struggled to find work but I also work very hard. Privilege, instead, seems to be the ability to get what you deserve without anyone questioning or impeding the process. In my very limited world and very emotionally based views I cannot help but feel crushed that anyone would have to live any other way. I always felt that I had lived such a privileged and safe life because I lived it in the U.S. but it turns out that I lived a privileged and safe life because I am White. I have lived a beautiful and successful life because nobody has ever stopped me from doing so. I can’t help but wonder what the world might be like if everyone had that very same privilege.
I wonder what the world might be like if people from a place of privilege lived a life with that privilege removed, even if for a day. For a country that was founded on the principles of freedom and equality it seems that we have strayed so far away from these principles that we are no better off for them. It’s just such an embarrassing pity to me that only when I purposefully placed myself in the minority was I able to finally feel compassion for others.