Monday, January 16, 2012

Unpacking the Backpack

All semester long, I’ve been mulling over a blog post in my mind, one dealing with the topic of race. But, it’s a difficult post to write because, well, I’m white, so I’ve been putting it off. But in seeing everyone post about MLK Day, I thought: if there’s a time to write this post, it’s now. So here goes. From the start, one of the reasons that I really wanted to spend our time away in a country so very different from our own is that it allows me to experience my race in a way that’s not possible at home. Now, I know this may be a touchy subject, so I suppose I need to preface this post with a caveat. While I’m going to be talking about how being here has allowed me to become more aware of what it feels like to be different, I am, of course, completely aware of the fact that it’s not the same. I mean – I am a white person in a country that was a British colony. Therefore, being white here carries many of the same sorts of privileges that it does in the U.S. Even though I have become more fully aware of what it means to feel different than others, I’m not sure that I can ever understand what it means to feel disadvantaged because of that.

So while I cannot fully unpack the backpack that is privilege, my time here has given me a much better understanding of how it feels to be different. We live in a part of Hong Kong where few expats live. Therefore, it is not uncommon for us to be the only white people when we board public transportation, when we step into a store, or even when we walk down the street. There have been times when we have been stared at, pointed at, and probably talked about (I can’t be sure of the latter as there is the additional linguistic barrier here, but all signs point to this being the case). As an example, when we returned from Macau, we decided to take the ferry back to Tuen Mun, which is the town we live in. Few westerners do this as few live in the area; most take the ferry back to Hong Kong Island or Kowloon. So, pretty much every worker we interacted with kept saying :”Tuen Mun, Tuen Mun” – just in case we didn’t know where we were going. In the departure lounge, people openly stared and probably talked about us. Not a big deal if this was the only time something like this occurred. But it’s pretty much a common occurrence for us to be noticed because of the color of our skin. Children are probably the most interested in us; we may be the first actual white people some of them have seen, and they are particularly fascinated with Berkley and his blond hair. I have, on a few occasions, been followed around a store, although I think that may be more due to the fact that they think I may be more likely to spend money and they want a commission than due to the fact that they think I might shoplift something. Nonetheless, when this happens, it’s been pretty clear that they’re following me because I’m white.

After a while, it becomes part of the new normal. You’re different, so people notice you. At the same time, it’s unsettling in the long run to be singled out as different so frequently; eventually, you long to be among people like you. So when you are on public transportation and there are other white people, you notice. It’s as if there’s some force of recognition of someone else who is like you. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re like you. Heading home one night on the MTR, there was another white couple to whom Berkley tried to talk. I say tried as they were French, so I could only rely on my minimal college-level French and their minimal English skills to communicate (of course, Berkley tries to talk to nearly everyone using his English; if they say one or two halting words in English to him, he’s off to the races). We had assumed that we could speak to each other simply because of the color of our skin, which wasn't necessarily true. Interestingly (at least for me, probably less so for some of my friends of color), this feeling of connection crosses racial barriers. I have exchanged this look of recognition with some black people I have seen, as if our being different from the majority here creates some sort of bond that would not be the same at home. After a while, you begin to understand why expats tend to befriend other expats or residential segregation occurs even in the absence of laws mandating it.

Now, if you ask Doug, he might say I’m being overly sensitive to this. And perhaps he would be right. Maybe since I’ve talked to some of my Women’s Studies colleagues about this topic and they’ve shared with me the Peggy McIntosh article that I linked to above (which is used in all of our Introduction to Women’s Studies courses), I have paid more attention to this issue of race while here in Hong Kong. I want to be clear that I don’t think we’ve been discriminated against because of the color of our skin. In fact, it’s probably the opposite. But as I stated earlier, I think that being here has allowed me to think more clearly about what it feels like to be different, to be noticed simply because of the color of your skin. And while I cannot ever fully understand what it means to be discriminated against because of the color of my skin, I hope that my experiences here will help me unpack my backpack and work to create a more just society for all. Just as importantly, I hope that my children will remember what it felt like during this year abroad to be so different from everyone else and that when they return to the U.S., they will be more sensitive to the needs of so many others who are different, whether it’s because of the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, their religion, or what have you. And as we all reflect on the life of Martin Luther King, I hope we can all work towards a society where power rests on the broadest of all possible foundations.

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