I live in a bubble. I am white, attractive, young, able bodied, wealthy, well educated and American. I’m a Catholic (well, lapsed Catholic), heterosexual, cis female and the fact that I’m a woman is probably the only knock against me on the official list of systemic privileges. My lucky bubble is often invisible to myself and to everyone who is floating in it with me, but I know that I benefit from it.
However, there are many Doubting Thomas’s in here who still demand proof that the bubble’s real. Because our privilege is often implicit (take this test to see what I mean), they don’t recognize how it helps them, and they don’t register that the opposite experiences of people outside the bubble — the profiling, exclusion and violence — are the other side of the same coin and proof of a larger problem.
Maybe if people like me, safely cocooned inside, speak up about our advantages, we can show that the bubble really exists — that our success isn’t all self-made, but due in part (sometimes a large part) to our privileged station. Maybe this will help give weight to the stories of people outside the bubble — that their success is in spite of their position and their misfortune was not all self-inflicted. Maybe this will help? It can’t hurt.
So, here’s a little story about the time I was the minority, and I still had privilege, courtesy of my bubble.
Ten years ago, I was twenty-four years old, and the company I worked for sent me to our factory in Tainan, Taiwan to work on a project. I knew, even then, that I would learn more from the experience than my host colleagues would learn from me, a newby at the start of my career. I have vivid memories of my two week trip, but the experience that is consistently most relevant is the feeling of being a minority. There were plenty of white American and European businessmen in the city, but I was the only young white woman around. I honestly don’t recall seeing another person that looked like me (although I’m sure she was there somewhere). It was the first and only time I’ve been the minority in a room, city or country, and it was fun — something I suspect few people in that position get to say.
I stuck out like a sore thumb and was acutely aware of this at all times. Once, I wanted to buy a stunning pair of shoes at the mall near my hotel, but when I asked if they carried my size (via an index card onto which my co-worker had translated key shopping-related questions), the sales clerk looked at me wide-eyed and shook her head quickly, indicating the answer was most definitely a no. Wearing a U.S. size 10 practically made me a giant, and I came home with lots of funny fish out of water stories like this one, but unfortunately, no new shoes.
These are the only kind of stories I brought back as a minority because I never felt unwelcome or unsafe. Instead, it was the closest I’ll ever come to being a celebrity. People asked to take pictures with me, little children stared at me in restaurants and women wanted to look closely at my eyelashes to see how they curled. It was weird, but that’s all it was. I wasn’t met with suspicion or hostility. I received a kind of deference, and I’ve no doubt it’s because of my bubble, specifically my race. I’m afforded privileges across the globe.
After my trip, I thought of other times my race benefited me. The simplest and most obvious example is this: I interned at the National Labor Relations Board in college and called a complainant to follow up on his claim. Someone answered the phone, and I asked to speak with the person I needed. The man yelled, “Hey, so-and-so! Phone call. It’s a white girl. Must be important.” Just like that, I was important because I am white.
My bubble travels with me wherever I go. It is real. It is powerful, and I hope it pops one day. Everyone should be treated with respect and deference like I was on my trip. Everyone should be considered important, like I was on the phone. It’s just sheer luck that I’m in this bubble in the first place. I was born at the right place at the right time to a good family with good genes. I’ve made the most of every opportunity I’ve been given, but I had my pick of opportunities at the start.
I’ll do my best to poke at the bubble from the inside. I’ll make my kids aware of their lucky lot in life, and I’ll remain sensitive and vocal about the persistent unequal, sometimes horrific, treatment of people who can’t claim as many privileges as I have. This bubble is a problem, and all of us are responsible for solving it.