Where does a fish go to be out of water?
February 6, 2018 5:45 PM   Subscribe

Which, in your experience, are the countries in which a white American male can experience firsthand the absence, or at least a starkly perceptible diminution, of privilege? Had a few experiences recently that showed me how unwoke I actually am, in spite of my being fully on board in theory. I discovered that in spite of my loathing for entitled people, I am one--I just couldn't see it before.

I act on it unconsciously for the most part, but that's actually worse than doing it consciously, in that you can't stop doing something you're not conscious of doing. I'm embarking soon on some hopefully global wandering (there it is again!), and I'm interested in going somewhere that I can get my sense of privilege completely deconstructed. Preferably without incurring grievous bodily harm, but a certain level of risk is acceptable.

I'd be especially interested in anecdotes, and comparisons of different countries for the purpose at hand.
posted by bricoleur to Society & Culture (43 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is a bit fraught all around, but as a white guy, visiting Tokyo was the first time that I ever just sat on a subway and had people glancing over the top of their newspaper at me, or had the front person at a restaurant look at me and tell me there were not going to be any tables that night. No risk of anything except a disapproving look - extremely safe area and extremely courteous folks.
posted by ftm at 5:49 PM on February 6 [9 favorites]


I'm not sure this is even possible. I'm a white, American woman who has lived in Ethiopia, India, Honduras, and the Marshall Islands. Aside from the West, I've traveled extensively in Africa and Asia and all of South America (nearly 80 countries).

My favorite places aren't Paris and Stockholm, they are Kolkata and the border of Ethiopia and Sudan. I don't seek out poverty and hardship, but I've seen how exhilarating it is for myself and others to be in the midst of extreme weather and lack of basic necessities. We get a taste, have a bite of street food, relish in not having refused a sweet offered on a train car, and return to our braggably cheap $4 room at night to sleep soundly. Being in such places isn't hard to me. People want to see me and talk to me. I'm a novelty. I learn a bit of every new language I'm immersed in, but other's knowledge of English helps me more. Privilege follows me around, and I can't deny it. We're in an amusement park we get to leave.

To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience, It is to impose yourself on places that in all non-economic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.
David Foster Wallace

Upon preview, perhaps an answer is immersion in a wealthy country such as Japan, and not a country someone would assume is hard, but isn't so much, as your privilege carries through.
posted by maya at 6:02 PM on February 6 [35 favorites]


You may have to look a bit deeply to find what you're talking about. A lot of countries that have discrimination against or negative stereotypes of white people also have a certain white/foreigner privilege. E.g. in Japan (mentioned above) or Korea (where I've spent some months), people may look at you funny and may think you are foolish or uncivilized, but you also get a license to be rude (by local standards) and weird because people don't expect much of you and also sort of admire/fetishize Americans/white people. So if you're oblivious and not looking for it, or don't take the time to educate yourself on local culture, it can be easy to overlook so long as you're only having superficial interactions. But expats often find themselves worn down by the ongoing exclusion and stereotypes.
posted by Lady Li at 6:02 PM on February 6 [8 favorites]


There are a lot of places in the US you can visit and be the only white person in the room. I’ve had this experience in various restaurants in New Mexico and Arizona, and Texas.

This might not hit your desire as in these experiences I wasn’t treated badly but it does feel a little bit weird. And then I realized this was probably how the sole black kid in my school class felt.

A trip to the SW can also include a trip to an Indian reservation. It’s very eye opening just how barren the land is. Not only did the early settlers kill Native Americans and drive them from their homes, but they gave them the worst land.
posted by MadMadam at 6:05 PM on February 6 [16 favorites]


Not Japan. Please do come visit and enjoy. Yes, there will be some extra being looked at. Maybe, some people will leave the seat empty next to the foreigner on a crowded train. But, white people-and white men in particular-are quite privileged here.
posted by Gotanda at 6:31 PM on February 6 [8 favorites]


This might not hit your desire as in these experiences I wasn’t treated badly but it does feel a little bit weird. And then I realized this was probably how the sole black kid in my school class felt.


Yeah, there's been a couple times I've been out riding the bus out around by the University of Chicago/Hyde Park where I've been the only white person. I don't really know the words to describe it, but it's absolutely something I hadn't previously experienced ever before. It was unusual, I guess. Very different.

"Racial tourism" or whatever is maybe not the best reason to go head over to the other side of town, but you can probably find something slightly closer to home that might be outside your regular routine.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 6:40 PM on February 6 [2 favorites]


When you're a white man, you ARE white privilege. It goes with you wherever you go, because it IS you.
posted by jesourie at 6:47 PM on February 6 [44 favorites]


This is not a direct answer to you question, but might be something you can ponder -- consider volunteering at a local organization that helps people who don't have your privileges. You will undoubtedly get a clearer view of just what those privileges are, while also utilizing them in a constructive way to create some change.
posted by kmkrebs at 6:50 PM on February 6 [32 favorites]


There are a lot of places in the US you can visit and be the only white person in the room. I’ve had this experience in various restaurants in New Mexico and Arizona, and Texas.

This might not hit your desire as in these experiences I wasn’t treated badly but it does feel a little bit weird. And then I realized this was probably how the sole black kid in my school class felt.


Nope. It wasn't. I mean, that kid may have felt "a little bit weird" sometimes. But he almost certainly faced a lot more challenges than that, and in ways that weren't just amplified versions of your faint weirdness.

I'm not saying this to pick on you. But I think it's important to point out that this sort of exercise, and the sort of exercise the OP is imagining, are really bad ways to learn about the actual impact of racism.

It's easy to spend a bus ride feeling very vaguely awkward because everyone else on the bus is Black and tell yourself "Oh! This is what being the victim of racism is like!" — and if you do that, you form a false impression of racism's effects, one that leaves out everything about power and violence and prejudice and makes the minority experience out to be no worse than having a hole in the ass of your pants. It's about a lot more than feeling awkward or conspicuous, and it's dangerous to convince yourself otherwise.

OP: If you want to learn more about what it's like to lack privilege, don't look for places where you'll be disprivileged as a white dude. Get to know people who lack privilege themselves, and listen to them.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:54 PM on February 6 [155 favorites]


OP: If you want to learn more about what it's like to lack privilege, don't look for places where you'll be disprivileged as a white dude. Get to know people who lack privilege themselves, and listen to them.

Yes. The idea that you can somehow do this on your own, and especially the idea that only by experiencing marginalization for yourself firsthand could you possibly understand privilege, is a manifestation of your privilege.

Learning how to trust, follow, and listen to less-privileged people without jumping into a man-splainy/expert/lecturey/defensive mode is the experience that you're looking for. Let yourself be actually humble (not altruistically humble, which is still an ego-feed) around people you've been taught to be superior to.
posted by lazuli at 7:00 PM on February 6 [49 favorites]


I’ve never traveled but I’ve heard that there’s quite a hierarchy to Dubai and if you’re not local you literally just get pushed to the back of lines. This might be along the lines of what you’re hoping for in some ways. However it’s probably important to address the different types of privelesge that you may hold- whiteness, maleness, education, accent, height, and others and that some locations may tick these boxes and some may tick others.

Unpacking the invisible backpack may be a good place to start and look at how these privileges may apply in places closer to home.
posted by raccoon409 at 7:00 PM on February 6


I think Japan can be an answer if you look at this the other way round--not "where will I not be privileged" but "where is my privilege beating me over the head". It's the only place I've been where I was essentially illiterate. And that did lead to a particular kind of stress I haven't experienced elsewhere. But the reason everything works out is that a lot of effort has been put into making things tractable for English speakers. That's obviously true in many places, but it's really obvious when your inability to read is always reminding you how stuck you'd be otherwise. I could also tell that I was being cut slack on social norms.

Yeah, there's been a couple times I've been out riding the bus out around by the University of Chicago/Hyde Park where I've been the only white person.

The difference, though, in Chicago anyway, is that if you're white, people assume you're lost and try to help you. If you're black, they think you're going to rob someone. Having the bus driver ask where you're going because you've crossed an invisible line and are the only white person on the bus is awkward, but it's still white privilege.
posted by hoyland at 7:21 PM on February 6 [17 favorites]


I see your good intentions but this is simply impossible to do. I am a white American woman who has traveled to various countries on five continents. Overall, I had a wonderful experience everywhere; my privilege was right there alongside me the entire time in blatant and subtle ways. I attended a public school in the US where I was one of the only white American students. It was a wonderful and eye-opening experience but, yet again, I was very privileged there. Privilege isn't an outfit you can take off: it stays with you your entire life in various ways. For example, even if I were to lose all of my money, I'd still have my top-tier graduate education that would enable me to get a variety of middle-class jobs, I'd have my connections to family and friends who could support me financially and emotionally, I'd have the knowledge of how to navigate the various institutions in the US to receive assistance, etc. You get the point.

As a white American man, you will be tolerated-to-fawned-over most everywhere. I have seen it and it's kinda gross but that's how it goes. It can be a bit objectifying in a way but you still have that privilege. For you it's not about seeing what it's like firsthand but rather asking and truly listening to others' experiences. Go where you want to go for whatever reasons! When you're there, have a good time but also reflect on your privilege and try to take up less space/make space for others. For example, you can reflect on how you are being treated as a wealthy white male tourist abroad and think of how poor immigrants of color are treated in the US. Then you can come back and use your privilege here to help educate and act to make life better in ways it is needed and you want to help. Traveling abroad is as much about thinking about our roots and own identities as it is learning about others.
posted by smorgasbord at 7:42 PM on February 6 [5 favorites]


I understand you asked to experience this first-hand, but I honestly think the best way to do what you are asking is not to attempt to experience it but to read. A lot. Read a lot about race.

Your very question holds within it a premise of great privilege. You are asking how to be a tourist, and how to specifically use the bodies of people around you to help you enact a scenario. You are profiting off of other people living their lives. This is in fact profoundly privileged. I'd encourage you to think about that a lot, from a critical perspective. I am not trying to attack you or make you feel bad for asking this question, but I do think that the very act of asking this question itself deserves interrogation by you.

I mentioned that you should read about race. I recommend you start with Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement edited by Kimberle Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, and Gary Peller. I picked it up recently and it's very good.
posted by sockermom at 7:43 PM on February 6 [29 favorites]


The only place I've felt both displaced and uncomfortable as a minority is Morocco.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:50 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]


I think travelling way out in the sticks of Japan or Taiwan will let you experience what it's like to be visible, to be illiterate, and to not understand the dominant language. I think it would be good for you. It's been good for me.

However:
Try to avoid thinking, and by the love of god at least never ever say, that any experience you have lets you directly understand what it feels like to be black/gay/other category you do not belong to, because it's not true. Some kinds of people have to worry about being killed for who they are. We can never understand what it's like. We can only try to know as much as we can, be educating ourselves, and by asking, and listening.

Do use the experience to make promises to yourself:
I promise I will stop talking about myself and only listen and ask questions when someone shares their story with me.
I promise to never telling someone I understand exactly how they feel about Y experience because I had X experience. I promise to never tell someone that men/straight people/white people/cis people have that problem too.
I promise not to dismiss someone's story. I promise to believe them. I promise to remember the story. I promise to do something about it.
posted by sacchan at 8:00 PM on February 6 [5 favorites]


Not a different country, but my (white) brother-in-law lived in Hawaii for many years, with his wife, whose ethnicity makes her look very similar to native Hawaiians. There were many experiences where he encoutered explicit prejudice and worse treatment than she did -- from the way he was treated at the local bar, to what a business charged him when he was alone vs. when he was with her.
posted by BlahLaLa at 8:24 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]


As a white American man, you will be tolerated-to-fawned-over most everywhere.

This has never been true in much of northern Europe (where I'm from). American tourists have been tolerated but not well liked in general until recently with the scales currently tipping towards active dislike, particularly or affluent or loud men, churchy types and those that are obviously not from the cities. Go get a MAGA hat and walk around Oslo or Paris or Edinburgh and see how that goes. White men are nothing special there and Americans aren't either.

Or you could just start vocally sticking up for minorities, women, science, the Truth and What's Right to your white male peers. I think you'll find they take away some of your privileges pretty fast.
posted by fshgrl at 8:27 PM on February 6 [27 favorites]


Be homeless.
posted by Sassyfras at 8:36 PM on February 6 [15 favorites]


> As a white American man, you will be tolerated-to-fawned-over most everywhere.

> This has never been true in much of northern Europe (where I'm from). American tourists have been tolerated
> but not well liked in general until recently with the scales currently tipping towards active dislike,
> particularly or affluent or loud older men.

I hear what the poster is saying here but I am speaking from personal observations and experience as well, including in northern Europe, during the Bush era and in recent times. In fact, I felt fawned over in Oslo as a white American woman and have other people share the same experience. I have seen white American male acquaintances in Germany get fawned over by women, including ones who are critical of US governmental policies. In similar settings, I saw black Nigerian male acquaintances be treated with suspicion and contempt and, sadly, this wasn't a rare occasion. Yes, the vast majority of the population in northern Europe may be anti-Trump and not impressed by America in general. However, even with the criticism, white American men still have huge advantages. So, OP, yes, you will likely have people criticize you harshly in many places if you walk around wearing a MAGA hat but you also probably won't have the police called on you for simply being a person of color standing around which can and does happen, unfortunately. The bottom line is that privilege is at play.
posted by smorgasbord at 8:37 PM on February 6 [6 favorites]


This has never been true in much of northern Europe (where I'm from). American tourists have been tolerated but not well liked in general

Compared to African and Middle Eastern immigrants and refugees in those countries, there's still a huge difference.
posted by lazuli at 8:40 PM on February 6 [13 favorites]


POC, cis het male here. I think about this from both sides quite a bit, and try to use the one to bolster my awareness of the other. I think it's wonderful you would like to improve your understanding of those with less, and I want you to succeed.

With that in mind: as others have pointed out, I don't think this can work in the real world. One of the hardest things to come to terms with about privilege is that it isn't entirely under our control even if we benefit - it's about how the rest of the world reacts to us whether we want it to or not. Much as you may want to, you can't just... not be a white man for awhile, live in the world the rest of us inhabit all the time.

I did have an enlightening experience in a virtual world one time - I had a female main in WoW for awhile, a long time ago (would've been 2007 or so?). Wasn't thinking about it, just liked how she looked in chargen. I was very open about being a guy with everyone, but I still had a lot of creepy experiences: weird passes, lewd comments and so on. I learned a valuable lesson about how shitty many guys are when the rest of us aren't looking.

However, I do not recommend deliberately seeking that out both because deliberately misrepresenting yourself to people would be bad, and because nebulawind is right: any experience you have like that will be misleading. Nothing a person can experience as a tourist will capture the real thing, if only because we can always walk away from it. It never holds the same feeling as a person gets living their whole life that way, and so it's easy for tourism to backfire and lead people to believe the struggles marginalized people face are actually no big deal.

So... I basically have to echo: if you want to understand this, reach out to marginalized people. Volunteer. Listen. Help. Don't try to be one of us, try to help us, and understanding will come in time.
posted by mordax at 8:46 PM on February 6 [11 favorites]


You can't have this experience. You cannot shed your privilege. Privilege exists on a systemic, institutional level. You will learn only by listening to the experience of others. Read. Listen. Do not make demands of other people to teach or explain things to you. Trust me, you will feel very uncomfortable reading about race, sexism, or LGBTQ or disability issues, or wherever you wish to begin. You can read in your local coffee shop. If you're sad you don't get to go on an "adventure" think about what that says about you. Interested in race? Try one of these.
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins
The Racial Contract by Charles W. Mills
posted by missmary6 at 9:06 PM on February 6 [15 favorites]


Everyone has made good points, so I'll just add this: If you do decide to try Japan (and a white man can learn a thing or two from that experience for sure), please do not come back here and try to tell Japanese Americans what we should or should not care about, or how we should speak out or not speak out, or that you, a white man, experienced discrimination in Japan and therefore your opinion on, say, cultural appropriation or the "What are you?" question counts more than ours. This is common and tiresome.
posted by sunset in snow country at 9:12 PM on February 6 [17 favorites]


To back up what mordax and sunset in snow country and others are saying, it may be helpful to read the main article in this recent Mefi post, The Limits of Empathy. The authors write:
All of this is to say that well-meaning VR empathy experiences might come with some hidden costs. One study shows that people who have experienced something themselves can, in some cases, have less sympathy for those who are currently struggling with that same issue. This same study found that, for example, someone who had been bullied in the past was actually less empathetic towards a child being bullied than those who hadn’t been targeted before. Psychology researchers think that perhaps those who have managed to endure an experience might see someone in the midst of it and essentially think: “I went through this, it wasn’t so bad, they should just suck it up.” If that theory is correct, then those of us who go through an experience in VR might actually wind up feeling less compassion for people in real-world situations. It wasn’t so bad when we went through it virtually, we might think, so why is this person complaining?

This work also raises questions about another way this kind of empathy on demand might backfire. If we can (and in some cases, are required to) experience someone else’s worst day, might we come to believe we deserve access to everybody’s experiences before we bestow legitimacy on them? Bailenson has already written about the potential use of VR in jury trials. “VR technology can be designed for use in the courtroom, to recreate crime scenes, impeach the testimony of unreliable witnesses, test assertions, and enhance a jury‘s understanding of disputed events in computer-based simulated environments,” he writes in the Marquette Law Review. Jurors could then decide for themselves whether the victim was truly in danger, should have been that scared, or could have done something to mitigate the situation.

The past can prove instructive with regards to navigating the pitfalls of the coming VR revolution. Long before virtual reality films like Across the Line and The Party were offering opportunities for people to step into someone else’s body. The most common versions of these simulations were done by researchers and community organizers hoping to help able-bodied people better understand the lives of disabled people. Put on a blindfold, tie a hand behind your back, use a wheelchair; all these physical experiences could be simulated for people without the need for a fancy headset or 3D animation.

These simulations demonstrate both the power and potential peril of such efforts. What studies on these kinds of experiences have found is that after, say, putting on a blindfold and navigating a room without sight, people do feel more warmly towards blind people. They feel more empathetic towards them. But they also develop negative stereotypes to go along with this warm feeling. In one study, published in 2014 in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science, participants who were asked to step into the shoes of a blind person by putting on a blindfold came out of the experiment with the belief that blind people are incapable of holding jobs or living alone, and that their lives are defined by misery. The subjects are so focused on their own struggles with trying to navigate that they assume that every blind person spends his or her days wallowing in this same state of frustration and confusion.

The authors of the 2014 study concluded that such negative stereotypes outweighed any kind of empathic warmth that the simulation might have also generated. Blind people don’t need warmth, they need people to respect them as fully functional individuals. What is far more effective at actually building respect and understanding for disabled people is face-to-face conversations with them. As Robert Yang, a video game designer, put it in a scathing 2017 critique of VR empathy experiences, “If you won’t believe someone’s pain unless they wrap an expensive 360 video around you, then perhaps you don’t actually care about their pain.”
The idea that you can just put yourself in someone else's shoes can backfire spectacularly. Even if you were put in a society where you had no power or privilege, you're still carrying all the confidence and advantages you were brought up with, so how you respond in that situation is going to be much different than how someone brought up without those advantages would respond. Your internal coping mechanisms are different. Playing disadvantaged tourist is a role, not a life.
posted by lazuli at 9:24 PM on February 6 [17 favorites]


I did have an enlightening experience in a virtual world one time - I had a female main in WoW for awhile, a long time ago (would've been 2007 or so?). Wasn't thinking about it, just liked how she looked in chargen. I was very open about being a guy with everyone, but I still had a lot of creepy experiences: weird passes, lewd comments and so on. I learned a valuable lesson about how shitty many guys are when the rest of us aren't looking.

This might be as close as you can get, creating an avatar such that not only is your membership in privileged groups not obvious, people actively assume you are part of an underprivileged group and start interacting with you accordingly. Sometimes people end up running an experiment like this unintentionally. However, a lot of things can't easily be hidden and of course, generally speaking, actively misleading people or playing "dress-up" as another ethnicity or member of a minority religion is not appropriate.

Traveling to poor areas can give you a first-hand view of how great your economic advantage in life truly is. You might find that experience genuinely eye-opening or humbling or inspiring of gratitude, but that same economic advantage means you get to leave the poor area whenever you want and go back home to your well-appointed life. If that isn't privilege I don't know what is.

Likewise if you go to a country, developed or not, where you look very different from the locals people will immediately realize that you're not from there, and their expectations of you will be very different from their expectations of fellow countrymen. You won't be expected to understand the finer points of local etiquette or social mores. You won't be expected to know your way around in either the literal or the figurative sense. Not everyone will be friendly and some people might be actively hostile to you as a foreigner. But, since you are a white male American, your interactions with people will still mostly be neutral or positive.

Traveling in a place like northern Europe, where you superficially look a lot like the dominant ethnic group but aren't actually "from there" either, will give you yet another experience that is interesting in its own right but also doesn't quite get at what you are looking for. People's expectations will be higher than in scenario 2 because you look like you should know the rules, and you may find yourself fumbling around and tripping over those expectations. People won't be as superficially positive towards Americans and as politely tolerant of your foibles as you may experience elsewhere. If you do well, you might even get compliments on how you don't seem like all the other Americans! Even so, because you're a visitor, your experience is not the same as someone who grew up in a society, who was enculturated in the language and environment and mores of that society, who is actually from there and knows their way around and understands the rules... and still experiences discrimination or deprivation or violence because of some aspect of their background or personhood that they can't hide or change.

Once again, at the end of the day you get to leave, and you take your privilege with you wherever you go. It's not something you opted into and not something you can casually shed.
posted by 4rtemis at 9:39 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]


Re: Japan --- it's a bit of a mix. In my experience, there is certainly less privilege than in the US. Japanese people are the most privileged there, for obvious reasons. On the other hand, you are extremely privileged over other minority groups in the country. Your experience would be very different if you were Filipino or Chinese, for example.

You would not be treated badly, for the most part (I've had a couple random exceptions). But you would be treated as exotic or different, which is another kind of experience you would not have in the US. May help to understand why "model minority" types do not necessarily like even "positive" stereotypes (although as sunset in a snow country says --- its still NOT the same thing that is generally faced by minorities in the US). Many people will not want to talk to you, but that is primarily because they assume you don't speak Japanese and they don't speak English (and even many people who know some English are too embarrassed to try it out).

So... its different than being in the US, for sure. But it's still quite different from the experience of being a minority in the US, or even a different kind of minority in Japan. As a fellow white male, I feel less privilege there than I do in the US, but I've never felt unsafe, for example. Some things are closed to me (there are definitely businesses that don't like foreigners, and things like renting can be complicated), but it's mostly in the "minor inconvenience" level. So its like a super lite version.
posted by thefoxgod at 9:44 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]


I guess what you're looking for is places where people might be wary of you because you're white, in which case Japan (which many have already mentioned) and Korea are good examples.

It's not quite the same thing, but Russia is another place where you might find a similar sensation. There is a general feeling of mistrust between people, which manifests itself in what Americans would perceive as rudeness (and well, so do Russians, but they're more used to it), and in many places you might find yourself being treated as if you're an inconvenience because you don't speak Russian and they can't be bothered trying to figure out what you want.

FWIW, I think many are misinterpreting the intent of this question. I'm sure the OP is more than aware that he is never going to live the reality of someone who regularly faces discrimination or similar, but that doesn't mean one can't try to move towards understanding this more by putting themselves in a situation where they feel uncomfortable because of their race/gender etc. Also, I think many are confusing people falling over them because they're white and American for simply just people falling over them because in many places white = money.
posted by ryanbryan at 10:15 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]


Another vote for I don't think you can really do this. Or, to put it another way, the invisible knapsack of privilege has a whole lot of different things in it, and while there might be places where you don't have some of them, nothing's going to match up neatly with 'what it's like to not be privileged in the US'.

I'm a white woman, and I was in the Peace Corps in Samoa in the early 90s. And that was interesting along these lines: the sort of general Samoan attitude toward white people (there and then) was sort of amusement at the freakshow, but in a mostly friendly kind of way. Like, it was two years of being conspicuously physically strange and socially and culturally incompetent, which is wearing. On the other hand, I was still a rich (I was being paid on the same scale as a local, but if I'd been a local I would have had more to support than just myself) foreigner who'd been dropped into a high prestige job (head of the math department at a flagship secondary school).

So, from that I feel like I know some things about what it's like to not be privileged, or more sort of what it's like not to be centered. But I don't know much -- it wasn't an experience with a really direct relationship to lacking privilege in the US.
posted by LizardBreath at 5:33 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


Well, even if you do find a place where you aren’t “privileged,” you will still bring yourself with you. I’m skeptical of whether “life changing experiences” exist outside of things that happen gradually after integrating yourself into an experience for a long time until it becomes second nature.

You can probably easily find a *few* experiences that people with less privilege complain about, but aren’t really that important:

- being exoticised. Some people don’t mind it or like the attention. For some people it is the worst manifestation of white culture towards minorities.

- being generally ignored or having people regard you as a burden or annoyance rather than going out of their way to help you. If you’re especially extroverted, you may find that experience upsetting, and I think that’s what people talk about when they talk about feeling “culture shock.” Once again, how you react to this is entirely dependent on what your expectations about life are in the first place.

Your best bet for experiencing this would probably be to start a small business is a small southern town where everyone knows each other. Your lack of privilege would manifest itself in how you would be low on the list when it came to get permits, how people would be unwilling to bend the rules for you, even though they had no problem doing so for their cousin. Or how no one really wants to patronize your business because they trust the lower quality services offered by the person they’ve known for decades over some stranger who talks funny. How no one would want to come to your BBQ because they think the food you serve is weird, and how socially you’d feel left out because you have different pass times than they do.
posted by deanc at 6:29 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


I'm sure the OP is more than aware that he is never going to live the reality of someone who regularly faces discrimination or similar, but that doesn't mean one can't try to move towards understanding this more by putting themselves in a situation where they feel uncomfortable because of their race/gender etc.
Sure, but the fundamental problem here is that he is still using people of color as a way to personally profit. Other people do not exist for you to exploit, even if your purposes for exploitation are "good" or "seem harmless." That is privilege. Reading is literally designed for this: it lets you experience someone else's life without nearly as much exploitation. When you buy a book written by a critical race theorist of color you are paying them, quite directly and clearly, for their labor. Other people do not exist as educational exercises.
posted by sockermom at 6:36 AM on February 7 [9 favorites]


Good for you; you're part of a long arc. Try standing at an intersection with a "will work for food" sign and no ID (and the understanding that you can't tell the cops that you're just playing). You'll get to experience free-flowing contempt, pity, anger, and a sense of your lack of significance and individuality, despite your whiteness+privilege. I thought about saying something flip like "do this for the rest of your life" or "then tweet @#Igetit," but I'll just say you could experience a beginning.
posted by bullatony at 6:36 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]


Go to a major American city (NY, Chicago, Phila, DC, Seattle, San Fran, LA, Boston, Portland OR would be good choices). you go with only the clothes on your back and what you can fit in a backpack. You have no money and no place to stay. Try to make it a week.
posted by WeekendJen at 7:23 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


to add on to other folks' points:

the lack of privilege isn't a fleeting thing. it's an everyday, minute-to-minute, unending, perpetual existence that you are absolutely helpless in overcoming such that it will and does have significant impact on your health, quality of life, economic prospects, social relationships, your job, and so much more

for just one example of countless thousands - race determines, for black women, an outsized experience of stress in the world such that they age more quickly, die more frequently during childbirth, and live much shorter lifespans even if you control for socioeconomic status

as a white male, you cannot possibly experience the depths or the effects of losing your privilege to such an extent that it significantly and disproportionately impacts your health. to be Othered is to face perpetual, unending, multi-variate, and inescapable stress from almost every place, including your home where literature, media, social normalizations, and such all still apply - this is not something that can be simulated by going to countries around the world, especially considering the effect of colonialism. Japan, particularly, was colonized and now benefits from an economic relationship with the US - how different is that story from black Americans whose ancestors were kidnapped and forced into human bondage for the entirety of their lives? whose history is one that's rife with human rights abuses by an uncaring, dehumanizing state?

this is why 'Trust Black Women' isn't some silly thing that people who wear pussyhats say - it's a very real point that people with privilege very often refuse to acknowledge, who take for granted that their privilege and power should be able to afford them the depths of any and all experiences of the world
posted by runt at 7:39 AM on February 7 [9 favorites]


I love that you are asking this question.

I am a middle-aged white lady. I've grown up in LA, fairly middle-class but in a mixed white-collar/blue-collar neighborhood. My schools were all racially mixed. When I went to college it was overwhelmingly white and I found myself purposely seeking out poc to hang with just to feel normal. I had a job for a few years in Compton, and I've worked in some dodgy neighborhoods in Long Beach. In short, I'm familiar with poc, and with "poorer" neighborhoods. I thought I was okay with it.

Last week for work I had to spend the day in Nickerson Gardens. This is the neighborhood where Watts Tower is located. If you've ever seen Boyz in tha Hood, that's it. It's the projects, for real. I have never felt so white, and so privileged in my life. It was unnerving, and tbh I couldn't wait to get the eff out of there.

The store fronts go like this - church, church, liquor store, vacant vacant vacant, church, liquor store, cheap motel, church, liquor store, vacant, church.... It was obscene. There is no work in that neighborhood. There is one gas station, and it charges 30 cents more per gallon than the one in my (middle-class) neighborhood, so it's expensive to even leave the neighborhood, not that many people had cars. At 8am I saw a lot of people setting up folding chairs on the sidewalk to hang out and chat with people, and that was their plan for the day.

My point is, you likely don't have to go very far to find the experience that you are asking about. You certainly don't have to leave the country, you have neighbors who are living way less than a privileged life. Think about spending some time with them. Think globally, act locally, as the saying goes.
posted by vignettist at 8:23 AM on February 7 [4 favorites]


You are your skin. You can't get away from this. You can however make concious choices not to exercise your privilege. For example to not ask a question (usually give an opinion) after a presentation or lecture. Resist your urge to correct or explain (within reason of course). Listen twice as much as you speak.

You can't get away from your privelege especially relating to ethnicity, but depending on your physicality and presentation you could possibly get away, a little, from your maleness. I can imagine there are parts of the world where you are considered not much of a man. I have been a third part to really interesting changes in how person A feels about feminism after they have been treated (kindly but still) as really not quite a man by larger, more masculine men. I'm thinking rural Russia might give you a feel for it.
posted by Iteki at 9:53 AM on February 7


I'm interested in going somewhere that I can get my sense of privilege completely deconstructed.

In this place, where you get your sense of privilege deconstructed, who or what is deconstructing your privilege? Whose job is it to change your view?

My man, it's YOUR job. It's not a thing that can "happen to you" by immersion, like learning a language. And wherever you go, your privilege will follow you.

I agree that the country best suited to teach you what you want to learn is your own, taking the exoticism of foreignness out of your well-intentioned quest. Consider committing to some long-term volunteer work for an organization serving a poor community of color near to where you live. See how life is different in a familiar place. You and your motives and your assumptions will rightly be viewed with some suspicion, even while you're treated with politeness.

Preferably without incurring grievous bodily harm, but a certain level of risk is acceptable.


What kind of risk are you envisioning, because my reaction is to gently suggest that this is some macho bullshit right here.

Among other reasons, putting yourself in risk of physical harm is stressful for the members of a disenfranchised community. Consider this, when a robbery or shooting happens in a touristy or prosperous neighborhood, the news focuses on the dastardly criminal who is responsible for the shocking crime. When a robbery or shooting happens in a poor neighborhood, the tendency is to tsk tsk and blame the "bad neighborhood."
posted by desuetude at 10:34 AM on February 7 [9 favorites]


You just have to look homeless. People will treat you like dirt right here in America.
posted by w0mbat at 12:09 PM on February 7 [2 favorites]


I don't think a vacation elsewhere is going to teach you much about the groups over which you hold very real privilege back home. If you stick out because people see you as a rich white man, and people don't like you because of that, that's not oppression. Black people in the US, for example, aren't "fish out of water," they're oppressed in macro and micro ways every second individually and as a group.

I think you accomplish this education by listening to and reading those people over which you're priviledged, and believing them and taking it to heart. Instead of thinking "I'm not like that" when reading about white people or men, think "I AM like that."

In fact, if you did go to a country where you stick out as a tourist and then return thinking you now know how certain oppressed people in the USA feel, that's an even more ignorant (and yes, privileged) position than the one from which you began.
posted by kapers at 1:19 PM on February 7 [3 favorites]


I tend to agree with people who think that you can have some kind of experience through travel, but it's still going to be the experience of being a white man. I wonder, though, what insights you might gain by putting yourself in a position of lower perceived class privilege. For instance, what if you worked with a catering company staffing high-end benefit or corporate gigs, as a waiter or busboy? I learned more about privilege and perception in my service jobs than anywhere else I've been.
posted by Miko at 2:19 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


I very much appreciate all of these answers. I think so far the most on-point suggestion has been to try being homeless in America, but every single answer has given me something useful to think about.

I'm not seeking to posit myself as a member of any particular underprivileged group or groups, or the underprivileged in general, to be able to say, "I know what it's like," even to myself. I actually have been broke, homeless, and alone, as a teenager, in a country where I didn't speak the language and didn't look like anyone around me, but it never occurred to me, then or since, that I had experienced anything other than a temporary interruption of the abiding fact of my privilege. OK? That's not what the question is about.

kapers sums it up like this: Instead of thinking "I'm not like that" when reading about white people or men, think "I AM like that." Fair enough! But nothing I'd ever read about privilege, race, sexual orientation, feminism, etc. had made me think that. Because I looked at myself, and didn't see the resemblance. It took the experience of being called out, albeit ever so politely and gently, even unintentionally, by someone whose opinion I respected and whose respect I really cared about, to finally hold up the mirror at the right angle. So, you have to start somewhere, right? And everyone learns differently.

You're probably wondering how it took so long for me to have that experience. Here's something else I've only really realized recently: when you're a tall, annoyed-looking white guy, no one calls you on this shit unless you're over-the-top about it, which I never was. You get the redacted mirror.

So, yeah, I'll be starting on that reading list and taking it more to heart now. Thank you.
posted by bricoleur at 5:49 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


More ways to decline privilege:

- on public transport, sit beside a man. Once the bus or subway is so full that people have to sit next to each other both men and women will in general sit next to a woman. Sit next to a dude. Be the one who is cramped and give some woman a little space.

- in situations where you could ask for more or a favor or leeway or whatever. Don’t. You get a yes where marginalized people get a no; “can’t hurt to ask” is in many ways a privileged viewpoint, be it ‘positive’ privilege (nice guy, reminds me of my dad) or fear ‘big angry looking entitled white dude’.
posted by Iteki at 11:04 PM on February 8 [2 favorites]


As someone who has class privilege but also identifies as a queer person of color, the most you can ever understand is centering yourself in your understanding of your privileges, be the best person you can, always look for ways to help (and when the help is not wanted, leave quietly), and stand up for what's right. That is one of the hardest things you can ever do in this world, is to make a commitment to that work and do it everyday, even when no one monitors you, praises you, or alternatively, when a bunch of people praise you and do monitor you. It has to be for yourself because it is the right thing to do in a way to truly support others in a society founded on inequity and injustice. You can't fully understand, but you can witness and then do something about it, and take the path that is difficult and painful for you to acknowledge.
posted by yueliang at 10:40 PM on February 12


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