Privilege and race have been on my mind. Then this buzzfeed quiz came across my Twitter feed this morning.
I scored 62 out of 100. Not high for a quiz – though high enough to be called “quite privileged.” Buzzfeed is by no way scientific and, from what I have seen on Twitter, there has been quite a wide variety of scores received. Some scores seem to make sense to the recipients, but some do not. Either way, it has opened up a conversation about what privilege means.
Later on this month I will be helping to lead a group of high school students on a “Global Citizen Youth Leadership” program in El Salvador. Part of the pre-trip conversations have included this topic of privilege. What is white privilege and what do we do with it? Interestingly, not all of us participating are white and I am sure this will add a lot of good insight to the conversation when we finally meet face-to-face.
When I think of privilege and the privilege my whiteness gives me, one of the most vivid examples I can think of was on Offshore when we were in Madang, Papua New Guinea. I and the other cook were in charge of provisioning the ship and we enjoyed our trips to the market to get fresh fruits and vegetables. Across the Pacific, these trips were usually filled with laughter as we all struggled between broken English and limited Pidgin to make it understood that these two girls wanted to buy that entire pile of carrots and that whole bucket of potatoes, plus all the watermelon we could carry. The laughter continued as we would struggle to load them onto our shoulders and carry the produce back to the boat.
The market was full of friendly laughter. It was different at the grocery store.
We shopped at the grocery store with some regularity over the week we were in port. It was a good place to stock up on canned goods, meats, and everything else generally not available at the open-air market. PNG is a country not particularly known for being safe and so we were not surprised to see armed guards at the entrances and exits of the store. I was a little uncomfortable when everyone’s bags were searched upon leaving the store – everyone’s except ours.
But nothing was as uncomfortable as the day we arrived to shop and there was a queue of about 30 people waiting to get into the store. We joined the back of the line, happy to wait our turn and attempt to converse with the people around us in line. The armed guards had other ideas.
They saw us waiting in line and came and told us to come with them. It wasn’t safe for us to wait in line, they said: two white girls in a line of New Guineans. It wasn’t safe. What felt not safe were the hisses that followed us as we became escorted queue-jumpers, passing all 30 of the people ahead us in line and into the store to do our shopping. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up to hear those hisses and I saw exactly what privilege – and dislike – my whiteness could afford me.
I think this is why I always strive to respect local customs and attire as best as I can when I travel. I just want to blend in. I count it a compliment to be treated like a local and always try to be as respectful as I can.
Not all of PNG was like this. In the remote Tsoi Islands where we worked together with local villagers to build a dugout canoe, a profound moment came when our Captain was talking with the chief boat builder after a long day of work. The boat builder held his dark arm up beside our Captain’s very white arm, looked into his eyes, and said, “It doesn’t matter, does it? We are brothers.”
White privilege. I know I have it. How do we live with it?
Thank you so much for sharing this story Gillian! How easily I forget about those significant experiences. I’m so glad and proud to have been with you during those times!
Thank you. Love always, Katie xo
Thanks Katie. You figure so prominently in some of my most memorable experiences of Offshore – it would not have been the same without you. You’ll always be my bunk buddy.