I’m not someone who grew up thinking of themselves as having a lot of privilege. Quite the opposite. In fact, I can remember being only a small girl when my mother explained to me that my life was going to be harder than others’ because “I’m a minority,” as she put it at the time. I’m a woman (even as a small child she referred to my future adult self as one that would necessarily involve discrimination by virtue of being born female, and because I’m Hispanic (the term she used). This was the 70’s, before the language of liberation in the community shifted toward the term “Latino,” to be more inclusive of it’s multiracial roots, to encompass native people, Africans, and white colonizers from the Iberian peninsula; and shifted again to include all gender identities with the more recent term “Latinx.”
I can remember stories about my father, Puerto Rican, being ridiculed and bullied for his Spanish accent, even at relatively diverse Hunter College in NYC. As a result, my learning Spanish was never a priority in our home; speaking perfect, unaccented English was the priority. I’ve always found it ironic, and more than a little painful, that some of the most fluent Spanish speakers I know are white Americans. They have had the privilege of learning a language in college, often studying for a year or more abroad, without the baggage, or fear, of being called a spic for using a language that isn’t English.
In addition to ethnicity and gender, my family was not one of economic means. My economic background is a story of its own, but for most of my life we were, what I would now call, comfortably working class. By which I mean, most of the time we had enough to eat and have a roof our our heads, but there was nothing left over for luxuries. In other periods of my childhood, I walked to school in incredible pain because my shoes were too small, and we didn’t have enough money to buy a new pair. For a while my mother was on food stamps. I stole 3 Musketeers bars for dinner because there was nothing else to eat. 3 musketeers wasn’t my choice because it was my favorite flavor, that would have been a Mars bar, 3 Musketeers was my choice because it was the biggest candy bar available, and therefore the most filling. It was far too risky to pinch a Mars bar, roughly half the size of 3 Musketeers,and risk getting caught, knowing that it wouldn’t even begin to satiate me.
And in still other periods of my childhood, I was exposed to a certain amount of economic privilege – visiting my father in his large house in Puerto Rico. Flying to Europe or Canada for weeks and months at a time during school holidays. Those vacations came at their own cost, as I was molested by my benefactor, a neighbor and family friend. I carried, and still carry, a significant amount of class rage that stems from my childhood. Angry at a system that left me to shoplift chocolate for my dinner, that left my mother nearly homeless in her 50’s. And still angry at the people, the affluent people, who took advantage of my families poverty and dysfunction to fulfill a sick and criminal desire of their own.
As I grew into adulthood, I became whiter. The obvious traces of my Latinidad faded. I spoke, and speak unaccented English, my Spanish language skills never quite developing the comfort of a native speaker. On scholarship, I got a quality education from a private college, which allows me to perform relatively well in posh settings. Eventually it dawned on me, the world sees me, based on the pale hue of my skin, as white. Only my name gives my ethnic background away.
As a result of a significant amount of incoherence and displacement in my early life, I’ve struggled as an adult to fashion a sense of identity with which I am comfortable. I envy people who proudly proclaim “I’m southern,” or “I’m an African American woman” or “I’m a suburban Jewish businessman.” For me, no easily articulated identity has ever quite felt like it fit. But one thing has always been clear to me – I was not a person who has had a lot of privilege. If I have been sure of anything, it was that. That shadow follows me to this day no matter what the external world may, or may not perceive. And that is perhaps still true, in an American context. But thinking about the second part of that sentence – in an American context – was a big, and recent shift for me.
The day I stepped off the plane into Zanzibar my sense of what privilege I have shifted. I’ve traveled to the developing world before. Quite a lot actually: Mexico, Costa Rica, India, Nepal. Visiting the developing world was not new to me, it was not something I was afraid of, or saddened by. At various points I have said that I like traveling to the developing world because it is a vacation I can afford to take. I accept poverty as a reality of life; a reality of life I was personally familiar with. In college I studied the ways in which colonization and global capitalism constructed the global economies for the benefit of some, at the expense of others. I don’t feel pity for poor people, or feel intimated by them. My most Buddhist of moments – where I see God and the self in all creatures – happens when I am traveling in the developing world.
What was different for me about Zanzibar was seeing for the first time the ways in which I am, and have had privilege. In some ways Zanzibar is like any developing area: shacks on the side of an unpaved road, rickety huts, abandoned car tires that at various points are used as toys or made into shoes. I can remember walking down the beach on my very first morning in the country thinking, if I am going to enjoy this trip at all, I better confront my own privilege now. And I made a mental list of those privileges – white skin (regardless of my ethnic background I have white skin), a good education, geographic privilege – I was born in America. America, for all its faults, has afforded me a great deal of upward economic mobility.
I met men in Zanzibar who have taught themselves multiple European languages in order to communicate with tourists – their primary source of income. A young man at a local bar started speaking to me in Swedish. He had never been to Sweden, he could never hope to have enough money to pay the fee for a passport, never mind visit the country. But he met a woman, a Swedish tourist, who he fancied and so he taught himself the language off YouTube. He enjoyed the language and has kept it up since her departure several years past, still searching for someone else to use it with. It was not an uncommon story in the little beach village I stayed in. Men taught themselves Italian, English, Spanish, Arabic – if there were tourists from a country visiting Zanzibar, locals would learn the language in order to communicate with them. They seemed to take pleasure in it. One shop keeper told me that Paje beach, where we were, had recently been written up in a French travel magazine and so he was teaching himself French in anticipation of the tourists who would be flocking to his restaurant.
I thought to myself, if these young men lived in America they would go to college, major in international business, and make themselves a fortune before they were forty. But most of them, maybe all of them, hadn’t even completed high school. One of the young men I developed a friendship with, whose intelligence I was particularly impressed with, hadn’t been to school since he was eight years old. I remember asking him to clarify himself because I was sure he meant 8th grade. How could it even be legal to take children out of school at eight years old? How could a person have so little education and still know so much?
None of these men are dreaming about going to college and majoring in international business. People can only aspire to what they see represented around them. They talked about challenges with their herd of cows, the latest gaffe out of the American White House, how to eek out a life in tourism. For them success is the simple security of comfortably feeding their own families. For these men, there are no Pell Grants or Stafford Loans for private liberal arts colleges. There will be no merit scholarships. There is the simple daily struggle to survive. Today and tomorrow, and the day after that.
I remember what that was like. Never imagining a life beyond tomorrow. I also remember knowing there was a way out, as excruciating a path as it has proven to be. And that itself, I realize now, is a privilege.
The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. Marcel Proust