24 Hours of Privilege

Image by Lan Phantastic, “Men’s Preparation” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Some people dream of a holiday on a tropical island. A few weeks away from the rest of the world, basking in the sun. I dream of being able to spend one day as a middle-aged white man. 24 hours of privilege. What an escape that would be.

I dream of being able to spend one day as a middle-aged white man. 24 hours of privilege. What an escape that would be.

You see, I am a soon to be 40-year old mixed-race woman. One that is often taken to be 10–15 years younger than she is (if you just opened your mouth to say “black doesn’t crack” please close it again, and quickly). Nearly four decades of subtle and not-so subtle racism and sexism and about a decade of thinly veiled ageism has made me very tired. A getaway to privilege paradise is just what I need.

How would I spend my day? Very ordinarily.

After waking up, I would go for a run. I would get up nice and early and pick any route I liked. I wouldn’t be concerned about it being sufficiently light out, there being enough people around to make it awkward for random guys to expose themselves to me in public, or worry about routes with too much traffic as that would increase the frequency of looks and comments. I could wear whatever I wanted, without having to take into consideration that whole female, yet not inviting, yet not too “ghetto” balance that apparently is required for not only my running gear but all outfits in daily life.

At work, I would have a ball. People would not interrupt me at meetings, not second-guess what I was proposing and instead nod understandingly as I shared my wisdom with them. No one would mistake me for the intern, the receptionist or my own secretary. There would be no puzzled look in the eyes of anyone I’d meet with, trying to reconcile the job title with the person appearing in front of them. No need to drop references to prior experience into the conversation to make sure they take me seriously. I could do a fraction of what I normally do and still be considered amazing.

No one would mistake me for the intern, the receptionist or my own secretary. I could do a fraction of what I normally do and still be considered amazing.

I would take a walk during my lunch break, maybe go shopping. Walking down the street, no one would really notice me. No awkward stares, no “compliments” from strangers or made to smile at anyone. No need to stay a certain distance from certain people to make sure I don’t startle them with my skin colour setting off their internal burglar alarm. In the shop, I would only be casually greeted upon entering, not jumped upon and asked if anyone can “help me with anything” to be continuously monitored from the corner of their eye. I would relish the freedom to move around the shop freely without keeping my hands in clear sight and just leave behind the receipt after paying, unconcerned that an alarm might go off.

In between e-mails, I would send out a few tweets, without considering if communicating about some worrying statistics I read about the situation of middle-aged white men would reflect badly on me or diminish the importance of the message since I, after all, was one. No one would start sexually harassing me online because I expressed an opinion.

I would walk home alone in the dark, without keys ready in my hand to defend myself or crossing the street to make sure I wasn’t being followed.

Not feeling much like social interaction after a day at the office, I would go for an after-work drink on my own. I could drink as much as I wanted, for as long as I wanted, and be left alone. Afterwards, I would walk home alone in the dark, without keys ready in my hand to defend myself or crossing the street to make sure I wasn’t being followed.

So many things I could do that day without worrying: negotiate my salary, go to the doctor’s office, go on a date, publish an article… But I would opt for living a regular day, one normal day, in privilege paradise. No tropical island could ever beat that.

Afterword

I have thought long and hard before deciding to publish this piece. First, I usually write about my work, not personal issues. Second, there was the subject matter. But I believe I should.

Growing up as the daughter of a white Dutch mother and a black Malian father in the Netherlands, I pretended for the longest time that my skin colour and gender did not matter. Perhaps this was wishful thinking. Perhaps I was inspired by the myth of a racism- and sexism-free society. Perhaps I was just naïve.

Over the years my awareness of — and anger about — the persistent inequalities and injustices that permeate our societies have grown. Yet, the times I have actually spoken up about any of this has been very limited. Usually, this happened only in a setting where there were others who shared experiences similar to mine. It is surprising how quickly those conversations emerge when you meet someone who can relate. As if we’re all thirsty for that brief moment in which we can really speak our minds without having to tread on eggshells and feel properly understood.

I am proud of who I am and frankly don’t give a damn about not fitting neatly into any of the boxes society so carefully constructs for easy reference. However, the rest of the world doesn’t seem to feel that way. People who enjoy the myriad of advantages that come with not being “different” rarely realise their privilege, thereby leaving those outside the bubble to shoulder the burden.

I am taking “angry black woman” as a badge of honour and coming out as one.

The stream of overt, covert, and implicit bias that one has to deal with on a continuing basis by speaking up, actively ignoring, brushing aside or working around it is endless. The pressure of having to represent whichever group you are being assigned to in people’s perception never abates. At best, it is annoying. At worst, exhausting. Research has shown that the process of “weathering”, the continuous stress black women endure due to dealing with the consequences of their race and gender, results in their body age being some 7,5 years higher than that of white women.

As my awareness and anger about this grew, I also realised that I was helping keep all of these structures in place. By not speaking up, I played a facilitating role, quietly stewing on the inside and only occasionally sharing my views and experiences with a handful of people. I decided to change this and speak up. I am taking “angry black woman” as a badge of honour and coming out as one.

My piece isn’t revolutionary (others are writing about these issues much more eloquently, even if this might never reach the audience that should be listening), but it seeks to convey what daily life isn’t like for many of us. We should speak up about that more. All of us. And more often.