So this happens. A lot. I get into a taxi and say “ni hao” (“hello” in Chinese).
The taxi driver’s eyes get wide and he says, “Waaahhh, your Chinese is SO good!”
My daughter, on the other hand, could get in the exact same car, with the exact same driver and say the exact same thing with much better pronunciation and get a much different response. Like “why don’t you speak Chinese?!”
Her experience. Her day to day. Her reality are radically different than mine solely because we look different.
She is ethnically Chinese. I am white.
Consequently, I have access to treatment that she does not.
That is just a small example of something called privilege . . . and I have it.
It’s a hot button topic (you may have noticed). It’s a significant piece of much deeper conversations around things like race, sexuality, gender, equality, appropriation and ultimately human value.
Those are hugely important topics for any culture to wrestle with, but in the heat of the mono-national or monocultural firefight, the nuances of cross-cultural privilege often get missed, overlooked or ignored.
From the perspective of an admittedly privileged, white, expat father who is raising a Chinese daughter and a black son in a foreign context, here are a few thoughts.
1. Privilege is a reality.
Stop. Before you cut loose with the preloaded, self-protective best one-liners, I am NOT calling you (and by default, me) a racist or a bigot or a Nazi. Privilege and racism are NOT the same thing. Racism is rooted in internal decay. Privilege is based on external realities.
(Read I Am Not a Racist: And other things I wish I knew were true.)
My statement is simply this — if you are white, your experience at home OR abroad may give you access to a different experience than people of color.
To dismiss, ignore or even to be unaware of that is to cut yourself off from the realities that other people face.
2. Privilege has nothing to do with your bank account and everything to do with access.
Speaking of preloaded, self-protective one-liners, have you ever heard this one?
“Privilege? Are you kidding? I have black friends who make three times as much as I do.”
Or how about “Hey, I’m white. I sure would like to see some of that privilege everyone keeps telling me I have.”
Singular thinking applied to a plural challenge is a logical fallacy. Privilege comes from the collective reaction of the people around you. So having less cash in your pocket doesn’t change the fact that you may be stereotyped as having more . . . and therefore treated differently.
And if you are treated differently, then the reality of your experience is different.
3. White is not the only privilege.
Every culture has people who have greater access. More influence, more voice, more power.
However, “oh yeah? Well so do you” is not a valid argument for less privilege.
That’s like saying, “I am not sunburned because you are too.”
4. The dials are turned up in a cross-cultural setting.
There are obviously far too many variables globally to make this universal, but in much of the world being Western is perceived as synonymous with being rich, and the clear indicator of being Western . . . is being white.
You may have been born and raised in London, but if you are a person of color the first filter you are perceived through is likely the local stereotype of the place you look like you are from.
Conversely, you may have grown up in poverty, but if you are white, you are also filtered through a stereotype. It’s just a different stereotype.
Every country (privileged or not) has prejudice (sorry UK and USA, you don’t own this one), and while that is clear in your home country, if you are living internationally, you are navigating the unseen prejudice of your host. You may see the impact clearly, but until you feel the history and the backstory, you’ll be in the dark.
Many cultures are unaware and unapologetic of their prejudice. White is Western, Western is rich, and rich is coveted. Everything else . . . not so much. That is simply accepted and communicated as a matter of fact which changes the narrative and ultimately the treatment of people (white and not).
(Read the eye-opening When Does a Person of Color Get to be an Expat?)
5. Relationship is key.
This is where it gets beautiful. Cultural stereotypes are crushed with relationship — and sometimes they are confirmed — but they are crushed or confirmed with real stories, real names, and real personalities instead of a skewed and shortsighted perspective.
Prejudice lives on the surface which, unfortunately, is where the huddled masses choose to hang out — but when you dare to connect deeply across a line, you can’t hold on to the luxury of your incomplete assumptions.
6. Conversation is critical.
Conversation is where truth is discovered.
Crazy truths like, not all French people are romantic,
and not all Chinese people are short,
and not all Americans carry guns,
and not all white people are rich,
and just because they’re nice to you doesn’t mean they like you,
and not all Africans are poor,
and Africa is not a country.
When you bother to build a relationship, you can no longer reduce a culture to a single story. Watch this.
Fair warning: The conversations are hard and awkward and filled with words like, “but I always thought” and “we don’t do it that way.”
The good ones though, end with, “wow, you just blew my mind” and “when can I hear more?”
7. It wouldn’t hurt us to shut up and listen.
Possibly the deepest pitfall of privilege is perceived respect. Culturally mandated hospitality gets mistranslated into admiration, and we are happy to sit on our throne and impart wisdom.
After all, if they just listened, we could fix them.
Ask a question that doesn’t start with, “don’t you always”. Then sit back and genuinely absorb the response. Dig into the heart of their story, what brings them joy and what causes them pain.
(Get a copy of 99 Questions for Global Friends: Quality Conversation Starters For Friends From Different Places.)
Whether you are listening to the people of your host country or other expats who are having a much different experience, you stand to gain and, ironically, have greater impact when you stop talking so much.
(Here is an amazing place to shut up and listen to the stories of expat people of color.)
8. With great privilege comes great responsibility.
Many expats march with the banner of responsibility. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard things like, “THEIR biggest dream is to be like us.”
On one hand that is a presumptuous, misguided arrogant premise. On the other hand, it is probably true.
It is flawed thinking to summarize the desire (or need) of an entire people group to one aspiration with words like “they” or “their.” That bias gets transferred from expat to expat and becomes the lens through which we view individuals. It dictates how we engage and how we interact.
Historically, that hasn’t gone well.
However, what if we broadened the parameters and stereotyped all of humanity?
It is, without a doubt, one of the greatest dreams of most humans to be respected, treated fairly, have opportunities to move forward, and enjoy political and financial security. It is the dream of humans NOT to be perceived and treated as less human than the other humans around them.
So yeah. Maybe they do want to be like you but YOU are not the dream — you are the poster child.
If you’ve never dreamed pessimistically about a world where you might be treated fairly — then you’re probably living in that world already.
And that is a privilege.
The responsibility of the privileged is NOT to show them how they can be more like you — it is to treat them like they already are.
9. I am privileged.
No question about it.
If you have a passport — you too have a privilege that the majority of the world has no access to.
If you are living by choice in a country that is not on your passport — you are privileged.
If you have a voice that is heard, anywhere — you are privileged.
If people look at you and wish that they could experience life the way you do — you are privileged.
That doesn’t make you richer, wiser, more honorable, more ethical, more important, or more human. It is just a reality.
You can spend your time denying your privilege because you feel attacked, or you can try to see yourself through the eyes of the people around you.
Seems like a simple choice.
What about you? Are you privileged and willing to acknowledge it?
Are there privileges that you are cut off from simply because of who you are? What’s your story?
(Originally published here.)