We spent the last week of 2016 in Cairo. One evening, I went out sans family with the always kind and knowledgeable tour guide, Andrew, to a bookstore near Tahrir Square, site of two of the biggest revolts against corrupt power in history (2011, 2013). As we walked back to our awaiting shuttle, a little boy about five years old (the age of my sons) was selling facial tissues. He grabbed me around the waist and held on, pleading with me in Arabic to buy some of his tissues.
He was in downtown Cairo, which is full of beautiful chaos, on his own, desperately trying to earn money. I wondered where he lives, and what the rest of his family was doing to put food on the table, and what sort of future he will have. Is there any chance he goes to school? For how many generations has his family faced the kind of poverty that requires a 5 year old to be selling tissues well after dark has set in, at one of the busiest intersections in the world?
And, why me? Why didn’t he latch onto one of the other thousands of people passing by? Likely, it was my white skin: the obvious face of a foreigner and a signal to him that I had discretionary monies to spare.
Meanwhile, across the River Nile in Giza, our children were snuggled into their comfortable, 3-star hotel (which we would later come to complain about). Our children who are taught not to speak to strangers. Our children who are not allowed out alone in the dark, even in our fortified compound. Our children who have been taught to find “someone who looks like a mommy” if they were to get separated from us. There they were, in warm beds with clean blankets, with their loving, attentive father, resting in preparation for a trip to the Pyramids of Giza the next morning … after a hotel breakfast buffet … featuring an entire wall devoted to pastries … and they were probably whining that they wanted another Kinder egg.
That moment with the little boy, though brief and handled compassionately by Andrew, was confirmation of something I already believed: We won the lottery at birth. My husband and I were born in America, with white skin, to (mostly) middle class Christian families, in small towns with good schools, as heterosexual people whose gender identity matched that of our sexual biology. I want to be clear: I am not saying I believe any of these factors are superior–not at all–I am saying these factors gave us a foot forward over people who don’t carry the winning ticket in this ridiculous lottery.
The many privileges that have accompanied our whiteness in life cannot be overstated, and I am painfully aware that there are plenty of people who don’t believe in this privilege. My husband openly admits he didn’t fully understand his inherited privilege until spending time in a country where most of the inhabitants are people of color.
A recent opinion piece in the New York Times by Robert Leonard pointedly stated “When you are the son or daughter of a carpenter or mechanic and a housewife or secretary who lives paycheck to paycheck, who can’t afford to send kids to college, as many rural residents are, white privilege is meaningless and abstract.” I would like to clap back at this for a moment and ask: what if that son or daughter of a working class person, living paycheck to paycheck, was a person of color? Can we admit that the system is set up to be even LESS in their favor?
But, the conversation about privilege is not meant to be a mirror for the privileged. Talking about privilege in this context has nothing to do with the privileged; it is not a personal attack on anyone’s work ethic or a measure of the obstacles they have overcome. Rather, it is about honoring and believing the stories of the unnecessary, racially based struggles of those without the automatic privileges that accompany whiteness in America, and as we are learning, abroad.
Does race matter abroad?
Our American passports give us incredible advantages. We don’t have to spend months of our lives and thousands of dollars trying to secure a visa prior to travel, work, or study abroad. I was annoyed last fall when visas welcoming our children into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia were delayed and delayed and delayed; and then I learned that this is not uncommon for those wanting to visit the USA, or for those with certain passports trying to visit or study or work in many countries, while it is relatively simple for American passport holders.
On their way through customs upon returning to Saudi Arabia from a holiday trip home to Canada, neighbors of ours were randomly bumped from the end of a long, long line of weary travelers. This family of white Canadians landed in Saudi Arabia after 30+ hours of airports and airplanes. They disembarked the plane, and found themselves at the caboose end of a line of hundreds of people. Customs in Saudi Arabia can be tense, but within minutes of getting into this seemingly endless line, a security guard approached this family, one of only a handful of white families waiting. This is Nicki’s — the matriarch of this kindly Canadian crew — account of the situation: “The guard said, ‘mama family,’ pulled me out of the line, even though there were clearly families before me and after me, and opened up a queue (line), pulled me to the front, and we got served right away.”
At first Nicki thought it had something to do with her adorable son in his adorable footie PJs (and I can attest … her son is adorable), and possibly it caught the eye of the guard, but after talking with others about this experience, she realized it was their whiteness that bumped them to the front of (both the figurative and literal) line.
Certainly, there are many stories of white people abroad being targeted because of the assumption that they have money. I was the victim of a pickpocket in Peru years ago. It was woefully obvious that I was a tourist, and how often does someone who has the means to travel internationally NOT have some money on them? With privilege comes vulnerability, and the privileges that paired with my peachy-freckled face outweighed its vulnerabilities.
I just finished reading “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This novel’s young protagonists are Nigerians in search of the opportunity that comes with an American education. In it, Ifemelu, the primary character who immigrates to the United States, writes a blog full of observations on race and privilege in America. But, unfortunately, white America pretends to be past all this because talking about race leads to talking about white privilege and that makes us feel guilty or angry or resentful or all of the above. And, hasn’t it gotten better? Well, as Adichie astutely writes, “Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.”
And, lest we forget about Earth’s language of power: English. Riley and I are educated professionals and neither of us speak a second language. We don’t need to. Meanwhile, the hardworking people at Burger King in Khobar, Saudi Arabia need to be able to speak English and Arabic if they want to work the register. Saudi Arabian money — Riyals — are written in Arabic on one side and English on the other. We went to the Sound and Light Show at the Pyramids of Giza. The Sphinx lights up and speaks to tell the story of Ancient Egypt and the pyramids. Guess what language the Sphinx uses to address its international audience? Yep, you got it.
Now, how to raise our children?
Our kids have all sorts of privileges neither Riley nor I had growing up, even as privileged as we were. They are going to see the world. They are going to attend academically rigorous private schools. We are hopeful they won’t have a need for financial aid as they prepare for college. How do we raise them to be aware of these privileges and not be insulated by the expat life we have chosen for them?
Educational Psychologist Lori Day succinctly stated what has been roiling in my head since my chance encounter with the little boy in Tahrir Square. In her blog for Huffington Post, she wrote that she hopes her daughter knows “the rental fee for her place at the top of the global wealth pyramid was some sort of activism, philanthropy, or simple exercising of informed citizenship.”
The other day our son Ike broke a toy. It was an accident, and he was upset, but we have been working to encourage problem solving instead of meltdowns. His way to solve this problem was to ask if one of the workers on our compound, Polita, could come fix the toy for him. That is privilege evolving into entitlement. We need to put a cork in that, but how? I have literally no idea, but we will start by being honest with our kids about their privileges and responsibility to do good, and we will not shelter them from tough topics like privilege and race. Beyond talking about privilege and race, we will do our best to model how adults should speak up and speak out when they see or hear or feel the injustice that is fostered by this arbitrary lottery.