Understanding privilege and ethnicity: A Personal Challenge.


(My parents on their wedding day, Nairobi, Kenya, 4 September 1987)

On paper, I am a minority. My mother is black: half Kenyan, half Indian. My father is white. My skin varies from being a light olive to 3-4 shades darker when I am tan. My hair is brown and naturally wavy-curly. My eyes are brown. I have somewhat non-caucasian features, but my heritage is pretty indecipherable.

On paper I am a minority, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that when you see me. I come from a upper middle class family, I grew up in Switzerland, I got to travel a lot and I speak fluent english and french. In person, I can perform whiteness. I portray European-ness. But I know nothing else.

For years I have struggled with my mixed ethnicity because I don’t feel either Kenyan or Indian at all. I visited Kenya multiple times, my mother regularly made us chapati and biryani and painted our hands with henna. But at school I hung out with my friends of whom 80% were white. I could eat hundreds of chapatis, but that didn’t make me feel more Indian. I could spend time with a Maasai tribe and bead colorful necklaces for tourists, but that didn’t make me feel more Kenyan.

I have struggled with my ethnicity because although on paper I am a minority, I wasn’t taught that I was. I wasn’t taught my mother’s cultures. I don’t know how to speak swahili or punjabi. This means that I cannot communicate with my grandmother and some of my relatives. I know little about being Kenyan or Indian, I have little in common with the maternal side of my family. My mother made me white, she denied me half of who I am.

This is a rupture of my identity. I only know my whiteness and I feel guilty about this. I hate that I can only perform whiteness.

I have been piecing together the ways in which my whiteness is a privilege, because understanding privilege is a good way to stop ignorance towards other minorities. Just because my mother is black does not mean that I have had the same experience as her. I cannot claim to understand the struggle of black women.

Learning about my privilege allows me to see the many incarnations of racism in the United States although it shelters me from experiencing systemic racism. The only forms of oppression that I have ever experienced are because of my gender.

I have however, experienced micro-aggressions based on my ethnic background, I have been told after I explained my heritage that,

“You’re lucky because you don’t look that black.”

Or the very common,

“You can’t be Swiss, you don’t look Swiss.”

Here in the US, people are sometimes uncomfortable when I reveal my non-whiteness or my Swiss nationality. All of a sudden I am not familiar, I am foreign, I’m not really American.

I am still absorbing the ideas of not quite identifying with my lost cultures but there are certain steps in my life that I would like to take in order piece together the bits of my life which I feel are missing.

In the following months and years I will be researching and reading about Indian and Kenyan feminism, I will read more literature from both too. I would like my ethnic background to help define my feminism. Who we are as people defines the goals we have and the changes we try to bring. Multi-ethnicity or bi-racial feminism is something that I am very excited to learn about and define for myself, and maybe some others too.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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