There were days during my overseas life when I wanted to buy a house and stay in my adopted country forever. And then there were days I wanted to hawk everything I owned and buy a one-way ticket back to the States.
On buses in Brazil, I overheard conversations about “a gringa” that would have been considerably less awkward had I not been fluent in Portuguese.
In shops in South Asia, prices mysteriously doubled (even tripled!) the moment I walked in the door.
In Kenya, I couldn’t even walk to church without my neighbors shouting, “Mzungu! Mzungu! Foreigner! Foreigner!”
Sometimes it seemed like I could barely leave the hotel or apartment without people making insulting assumptions about my education, character, income, politics and even sexual availability. But it wasn’t until I’d settled back into my comfortable American life that I realized the truth: What I’d experienced was my white privilege, turned on its head.
This Is Privilege?
When I first heard the term “white privilege,” I couldn’t fathom that such a term might apply to me. I wasn’t privileged, was I?
I wore hand-me-downs. I ate generic brand food. My dad drove a Cutlass with zero suspension and a trunk wired shut with a coat hanger (long story). I didn’t get into a private college because I was white. I got in because I worked my tail off for a 4.0. I wasn’t privileged. Was I?
But now, as I look back over my time overseas, I can see something new. I can see my Latina-American roommate moving through the streets of South Asia without turning a single head, blending in effortlessly. With just a few handy phrases in Hindi, she could haggle any auto-rickshaw driver down to a fair price.
I can see my African-American teammate putting Kenyans at ease without even trying. Even with his American clothes and broken Swahili, the frowns that greeted me transformed into smiles when he approached. I can see him fitting seamlessly and gracefully into their community while I stood on the outside, stewing with frustration and jealousy.
And now I look back on that anger and I wonder, is that how they’ve felt all their lives?
They Must Become More
A couple years ago, my almost 100 percent white church partnered with a new church plant led by an African-American community. The first night we worked together was everything you might expect—an awkward but fun time of teaching and witnessing alongside a new and admittedly different group of people.
But afterward, one of the women from the church plant called my (white) pastor in tears. Her voice shaking, she told him, “This was the first time in my life where a white person made me feel like my color was a blessing to them.”