(White) privilege

I'm pretty white. There's no denying my pale skin, my inability to tan, or the way my skin is so translucent you can see the blue of my veins beneath. There's no escaping my increased risk of melanoma or bowel cancer. With 3/8 of my heritage being British and the other 5/8 Eastern European, I'd struggle to convince anyone I'm anything but white.

I travel a lot. I don't have a TV at home (well, I don't own a TV but I am also too transient for a home at the minute). I like reading books. I enjoy my technology. I like to minimise the amount of "stuff" I have but have an obsession with shoes. If you read a list of how white people try not to be white, I'd probably be all of those things. I'll never escape the colour of my skin.

I'll never escape the odd reverence given to white folk in developing countries. The way, in my second-year medical school placement in PNG patients would request me or my (white) friend over highly qualified local doctors. Try as we might to convince them of who was really boss, the patients seemed intent on hearing our advice first. We would tell them to listen to the actual doctors, and they would respond by asking our opinion again. It was a difficult space to be in. 

I'll never escape the way, despite trying to dress appropriately for my location, my skin will always give me away as a person who must have more and be able to pay for lots. This was always, and still remains, somewhat humbling. I've been a student for longer than I remember, and have struggled to make ends meet for years. But I've rarely gone without - and going without for me is buying simple groceries (those painful weeks with $20 for all of my food) and surrendering any opportunity for paid fun. No coffees out, no weekend adventures, no new books or meat in my groceries. But still just enough to pay the bills.

I've sat in air-conditioned vans and buses driving through rural parts of Ghana, PNG and Cambodia. And in each I've seen people who are little more than skin and bone. In each I've seen homes that, happy or not, are naught more than a floor and a roof suspended by bamboo poles. Where income is a small stall selling sodas out the front of their home. Where skinny cows and wild goats roam the streets. Where healthcare is stretched to service those most in need, or those rare few with money to spare, let alone to provide preventative care.

As I walked down a main street of Siem Reap this evening, my ears were again pummelled by calls of "tuk-tuk, Lady!" A shout that came so often it seemed to echo with each step. I wanted to stop and explain that I love walking, that I don't want to sit on a bench and watch the world go by. But I know that they offer because a dollar or two to take me a kilometre is money to feed their family or maintain their home. That what is a small amount of cash can make a bigger impact on their lives. Because I am white, and my nationality meant I was born into some level of innate privilege.

As we drove from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap today, the man in front of me chatted to his seat buddy about his new life in Cambodia. About how almost everyone in the country would happily trade in their lives here for what is seen as better in America, or anywhere in the West. He moved from the US for love and has a Cambodian wife and child. But his life here has not meant learning the language or accepting the culture. He said it was more important for the community to learn English - and to pay for that himself - than for him to learn Khmer. And I wondered. I wondered about white privilege. That sense that the world should meet us on our playing field, conform to our expectations of a good life. Learn our language at the expense of their own. Lose their culture for the privilege of ours.

And I wondered how many times I'd inadvertently asserted my right to be white. To be this colour from which I can never escape.

Because even at home, my name and my colour (if not my sex) can put me leagues ahead of others in the employment game. Because walking the streets of New York or Sydney, I'm unlikely to be judged for wearing a hoodie to keep me warm. Because I know I'll almost always be safe seeking help from police officers and taken at my word if I need them.

I can't escape my colour or the privilege my birth affords me. But I hope being aware of it will make me more considerate of the needs of others. Because I didn't choose to be born with this privilege just as nobody chose to be born without.


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