Written by Paula O’Loughlin; Originally published at Heart, Mind, and Seoul
Just last month I was on a flight where I was on the receiving end of blatant racism. I have no doubt in my mind that the manner in which this particular airline employee (a white woman) spoke to me and treated me was a direct result of the color of my skin. As I am wont to do when it comes to processing the acts of racism that I am subjected to, I felt the immediate pull to name and claim my own responsibility in the situation. I know this undoubtedly is the result of being socialized from the collective culture who repeatedly and authoritatively tells me and other people of color that our experiences with racism actually have nothing to do with race at all and it’s a notion that I find imposed upon me on an all too regular basis.
Luckily, I had the good fortune of traveling with a friend who helped keep my perspective in check. My gut knew that this flight attendant’s behavior was racist, but I still found myself trying to make excuses for her. I was pissed. Both at her, and at myself for not calling her out right then and there. Then again, she did threaten to take my bag off the plane if I didn’t do what she said (although my friend heard that it was me the employee was threatening to remove from the plane), so I promptly obliged and sat down in my seat.
With a highly critical letter already half composed in my brain (which I did write when I got home), I looked across the aisle to my friend and said “Gee, I’m thinkin’ she would have never treated or spoken to S. (my husband, who is white) that way.”
Fast forward to the following month. Last week my family and I were on a return flight finding ourselves in the same predicament that I was in just several weeks before: trying to position and accommodate our airline approved carry-on luggage in the already crammed overhead compartments. Like my flight a month before, it was full and the overhead space was at a premium. Even though my husband’s luggage didn’t fit (just like mine didn’t quite fit when I was on my flight), he didn’t find himself on the receiving end of yelling, scolding and condescending behavior. Rather, two flight attendants made triple the amount of attempts on behalf of him and his luggage that I made with my mine – attempts mind you which were met with hostility and a threat to have my suitcase (or me, as the case may be) removed from the plane.
Admittedly, these events were not truly identical in that not only did we have different flight attendants, but that my family was on a completely different airline than the one I flew on last month. I get that. But that doesn’t change the facts of how I was treated and how my husband was treated. I wish I could tell you that these events happened in isolation and that our family has never experienced another situation similar to these. But of course we all know that not to be the case. I am aware of it. My husband is aware of it and our kids, ages 9 and (nearly) 7 years are fully aware of it as well.
After my incident on the plane several weeks ago, my husband and our kids had numerous discussions about it. My kids outright admitted that they didn’t think that their dad would have been treated as poorly as I was and using their own language, both were able to identify sexism and racism as part of the equation.
When this most recent event took place on our flight last week, both of my kids were quick to comment. My son especially is an astute observer of the particular behaviors people around him exhibit. Without any prompting, he matter-of-factly remarked to me that “people are nicer to daddy because he’s white and that people like to help him more. You have brown skin and people don’t like that as much as they like white skin”. My son’s daily lexicon does not include the phrase white privilege, but he witnesses it on a daily basis and is intimately familiar with the weight that it carries. (I would argue that we all bear witness to white privilege on a daily basis – some are just more adept at identifying it for what it is.)
I remember feeling such dissonance when I was about my kid’s ages regarding my white privilege by association. Like my son, I didn’t identify the way my parents and brothers were treated as “white privilege”, but I certainly knew enough from my experiences to know that I ranked a helluva lot higher as a human being when in their white presence. It did not go unnoticed that I would receive top notch treatment and be given the benefit of the doubt – all of the time, regardless of the context of the situation, whenever my parents or brothers would be with me. It continues to this day – with my family, my husband and my white friends. Alone, I am a suspicious person who is on the brink of doing something unlawful or untoward; with my dad in tow, I am suddenly transformed into a prospective client whose whims and desires are found charming and are offered to be met. Alone, I am a dispensable and barely seen customer who is relegated to waiting until the older white gentleman has been served; with my husband by my side, I am magically elevated to a more deserving status and ushered to a table straight away. Alone, I am presumed to be submissive and impervious to snide remarks and stares that suggest I don’t speak English; with my girlfriends suddenly I am a living, breathing, vibrant woman who is recognized for having a personality. Is this my dad’s, husband’s or friends’ fault that they are treated this way? No. Is it their responsibility to recognize that their white privilege affords them opportunities, access, benefits and preferential treatment that those they love as well as others of color are repeatedly denied? Absolutely.
It’s not uncommon for me to hear from white adoptive parents that it’s somehow okay to use their white privilege as long as it benefits their own child of color. But what is this really teaching their child? Whether my parents consciously used their white privilege to advance my own (or their own) best interest is irrelevant. No one is arguing that they did not have good intentions. The fact of the matter is that as a person of color, the impact is that I left the proverbial nest woefully ill-equipped to navigate this racially charged world. I may have been raised by a white family and treated as an honorary white person in their presence, but I had not been taught to anticipate how the world would treat me as an Asian woman, which is what I am. I was so conditioned to be treated as the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. X, that when I was no longer under the tutelage of two white parents, I was left unprotected, unprepared and uneducated on what to do when I was subjected to racist acts and behaviors.
The whole “Just stick by me, kid, and you’ll be fine” mentality does a child of color NO FAVORS. Because God willing, our kids will grow up to be adults and the world WILL see them not as your son or daughter, but as a person of color. Here’s a newsflash: The world already sees them as people of color because that is who they are. And like it or not, that means something in this society. We owe it to our kids to acknowledge this and to empower them with the language, the skill set and the permission to talk about race, racism and white privilege. My kids need and deserve to have their experiences validated in a way that mine were not. To recognize that yes, they are my kids and that of course I love them unconditionally, but to get over myself and to help my husband get over himself to know better that the greater world will first and foremost see them as a bi-racial female and an Asian male. And that those identities mean something in how they will be received by many. I harbor no illusions that they will be afforded the same privileges, benefits and unearned rights as their father and I challenge my husband at every turn to check his privilege at the door and to see the world from the eyes of his children. . . to acknowledge and observe that the standard of treatment he has come to expect often far exceeds what his wife, kids and other people of color are offered in identical situations.
To paraphrase the words of a white, male adoptive parent from Pact Camp who I admire and respect so very much, it is incumbent upon white parents of children of color to be intentional about NOT using their white privilege to their advantage and especially not cashing it in for their children’s benefit. In essence the message being relayed is “You, as a person of color, will never be worthy enough to stand alone as the person you inherently are and without the rightness of my whiteness, you are and always will be seen and treated as less than.”
To my son I say, yes, honey, you are right. Many people do treat your mom differently than they treat your dad and that is not right. I am worthy enough to stand alone. YOU are worthy enough to stand alone. We are not less than and we will not allow to be treated as such.