Watch the news, read a newspaper, or read articles on the internet and it is all but impossible to avoid the discussion regarding race relations and privilege that is currently happening the United States. Living overseas, it if often easy for me to ignore the “hot-bed” political topics in America. New legislation does not have too much of a direct impact on my daily life. The current, and needed, discussion on privilege does affect me and I have been seeing its effects lately.
Living in a developing country and traveling around Asia, it is hard not to see how money is changing society and creating cavernous gaps between the rich and poor in many nations. Travel to Manila and it is impossible to avoid the large amount of homeless people in the poorer districts and the pristinely clean streets in the central business district. In Beijing some people can afford to own multiple luxury cars costing $100,000 US Dollars or more while millions of others cannot afford to the housing prices in the city and commute 2+ hours to get to work. Business owners can purchase anything while their employees can only afford to live in an apartment with 10 other people.
It is easy to be the pot calling the kettle black and highlight problems in another culture while ignoring discrimination in my own culture. Talking about systemic problems, racism, and privilege is not an easy discussion but dialogue is needed if we are to make changes and implement just policies. These past few weeks I have been noticing how privilege affects me on a personal level and how damaging it can be.
Being an American in an Asia, I stand out. Being 5’9 with blond hair, I am usually a good deal taller than the average person around me. Being “other, means that my daily experience of life can often be different from my local friends. Every single building in China has a security guard (combination of cheap labor and a billion people who need to be employed). Most places even have a gate guard who tends to ask you why you need to enter a particular complex. It is an extremely rare occasion when I am stopped by a security guard. Most of the time I walk, ask them to open the door/gate, smile politely and walk to my destination. Most of the time my local friends are questioned. On the rare occasion I am stopped, security guards simply want to chat and find out about my life. There is a joke among foreigners here that if you walk with purpose and look like you know what you are doing, you can enter pretty much any building in the country. I am rarely stopped because foreigners are respected. Plus, I think the average security guard assumes I cannot speak Chinese and talking with me will be a fruitless endeavor.
In addition to being a foreigner who physically stands out, when people find out I am American it adds another level of access and ease. On the bus or subway people regularly offer to give up their seats to me. While checking out at the grocery store I have heard parents tell their children to me go first because I am a foreigner. Being “different” means that I obtain a level of respect that if often undeserved. I am thankful that people are more likely to assist me at the bank while if I have a problem because I am a foreigner and need help navigating an ATM in a different language, but it does bother me that I am given preferential treatment when I do not need it. This week I went to the doctor’s for my annual eye exam. I registered with the nurse, filled out my patient information and was told to take a seat. I noticed that the nurse listed me at patient #9 in the schedule but I was the next person to see the doctor after the current patient was finished. Being a white person meant I was able to jump the line. Not going to lie it was extremely nice to not have to wait for 8 other people, but at the same time I was incredibly embarrassed and almost ashamed that because I was American I was given special treatment over grandmas, kids, and the 8 other people waiting.
There are many times in my week where I can play the “foreigner card” and ask for or accept preferential treatment. It is easy to think “I am paying for this service and giving them a fair wage” while having an unkind attitude, while not being polite. It boils down to a heart issue and often times what comes from my heart is not what I want it to be. I do not model His humility and love. I have been meditating on Paul’s description of the Son in Philippians 2. In my interactions with EVERY person I encounter, I am to have the same mindset as JC. The Son did not consider His nature and equality with the Father something to be used to His own advantage. He considered Himself nothing, took on the nature of a servant, and humbled Himself to the point of death. This is so convicting. The Creator of the universe was humble and acted like a servant at all times. And all too often I demand service and do not serve.
I am challenged to recognize my privilege and do all that I can do limits its effects. I want to work on becoming more humble and serving others. I want humility to become so deeply engrained in my heart that it is my natural response.