Being a Minority Doesn't Make You Rosa Parks
Often I get asked what being a white man is like in some of the countries I have been lucky enough to visit; or it is sometimes said “What is it like to be a minority?”. I would like to clarify, though, that being a minority is not the same as being a part of a disenfranchised group.
It is often awkward because I know that people are looking at me. I can feel their eyes on me when I am shopping for rice or mangos. It forces you to second guess each decision. Am I squeezing this fruit the right way? Am I standing close enough so that people know I want to get on the bus? Am I being pushy? Sometimes this gets me into strange scenarios where I offer my seat to older folks on the bus and they just look back at me with a mixture of annoyance and confusion. Most of the time it’s simply awkward because I can’t speak the local dialect; so I can’t explain that it’s no big deal for me to stand up and I am just trying to be nice. Often, they just think I don’t understand how a ticket works or that I am confused about my stop. I have done this much to the chagrin and annoyance of my traveling partners, although one of my friends just loved to see the whole thing disintegrate into a big pile of kindly gestures and over exaggerated facial expressions.
It is also helpful in the way that I am invited to many ceremonies, meals, and events based on who I am. I will write more on White Privilege another time in an attempt to explain it and demonstrate its impact, but for now, that’s outside the scope of this post. In many countries it is similar to being a celebrity. One of my favorite experiences I captured on video - going to a small village in Ghana, where I became surrounded by students flooding out of a school who were interested in saying hi to me. You can watch that below.
My hope is that you can already see where I am going with this post. It is a word of caution. Saying that you understand the experience of a minority group because you have been a minority yourself misses the most fundamental element of what folks like myself experience - privilege. Even in my minority status, what I experienced was a privileged minority status. Celebrities are minorities as well (as opposed to those of us who will never make it on the cover of a magazine), but they experience respective benefits of being a minority, rather than struggles. So, if you are a part of a privileged group (and many of us are in one way or another) please recognize that while your experience being in the minority can be informative, it is also limited. Do you know what it is like to struggle for the right to vote? Do you know what it is like to board a bus when you rely on a wheelchair to get around? Do you know what it is like to worry if your children will get a lower grade in their class based on their heritage? If the answer to these questions and ones like it is no, then think carefully about what your experience in the minority really taught you. If you want to be a good ally, educate yourself, then stand up for someone who needs it.