Slipping by Invisible and Different


I live in a bubble.

A mostly white, university educated, well off, hyper privileged bubble dripping in opportunity. Often I feel guilty about the choices I've made, consciously or unconsciously, to gain access to this bubble. I feel guiltier still that it's possibly been easier for me to 'pass' because I have fair skin. Again, I worry that hearing from birth that this made me different, special, beautiful, has ingrained in me the core racist premise that lighter skin = better. I don't think that, but I am anxious that in so many areas of life, I've made decisions to follow norms of middle class whiteness, because it means a more privileged life. Is it acceptable for me to write for publications which only take contributions from people of colour? I've been exempt from the day to day micro-aggressions because I 'pass' for white: at immigration, at job interviews, in the street. My family have been subject to racial profiling because they are browner than me.

I slip by, unnoticed, invisible.

It may seem obvious, but it's worth repeating: white, western privilege, isn't just to do with class. My parents are both doctors, I grew up in Sutton Coldfield, I went first to a grammar school and then to Oxford. I've had about every advantage in life you can think of - but I'm still Bengali, and that still makes me sad about the state of the world, for reasons I'll go into below.

It's the ignorance of even the most well meaning, educated people. My best friend (white, from a socio-economic background less well off than mine, open to learn more about and be made aware of her white privilege) went to India recently. She was not on a 'gap yah' and is not a poverty tourist. Yet, I had a very emotional reaction to her telling me about her trip. She described the best and worst elements of her trip as often coming co-joined: getting a non-air conditioned overnight train from Agra that was ten hours delayed where she could see the sun rise over the paddy-fields, riding on the back of a motorbike clutching to the back for dear life while going down the 'gooli' to where she was staying. 

She caveated that these were times when she felt hyper-aware of being a white woman. But she appeared to me oblivious to the sadness of what she was saying. It was amazing and interesting as an experience for her because it's so different from anywhere she's visited before - Europe, the US.

But delays on a train and narrow, barely usable alleys to me don't signify anthropological interest, they indicate a creaking infrastructure first implemented in a colonial age where subsequently the countries were left economically unable to invest and update as their western counterparts could. 

What upset me so much about this? I see and accept the appeal of wanting to see and learn about different places. I appreciate that it's voyeuristic, but so is all tourism; on my first trip to Scotland I talked about the novelty of not being able to buy alcohol past 11, a symbol that the public health consequences of alcohol consumption outweighs the desire to govern permissively. Perhaps I'm upset that I've talked about hating my annual trip to the subcontinent for these very reasons: the poor infrastructure, the lack of freedom as a woman, being faced with daily inequalities that made me so conscious of my privilege, as one who got away before immigration law got too restrictive. Weren't you listening? Didn't you believe me? Did you think I was exaggerating? 

The reasons to visit the sub-continent are many and various but, in my opinion, they ought to be despite the markers of poverty, not because of them. When we travel in Bangladesh, we go by air conditioned bus, or car, and generally avoid travelling unless we have to. To do otherwise is, in my opinion, poverty tourism. I might even go so far as to say that to do a bit towards mitigating the impacts of globalisation, you ought to pay for better service, to try and redistribute through a means other than charity. 

My friend mentioned that travelling for leisure, even within India, is still a luxury reserved for when you're older, married, financially secure. This reflects my own family's experience: my parents and I both started holidaying after I'd left school. It just wasn't something we thought about before, we learnt to enjoy it. My paternal grandparents have never left Bangladesh, bar in the 1971 war of independence when my grandmother, with my dad, fled to Calcutta for safety: she was a writer, and that were under threat of genocide. My maternal grandfather helped to build the airport but never went on a plane. That grandmother has been to Saudi Arabia, for Hajj, not as a holiday but as a spiritual venture. 

Then I reflect on the fact that I know all of this, but have I gone into the details of how I feel and why with any of my friends? Not because I assume they know, but because it is painful to talk about. There are so many things you learn by product of just being from a different place, I forget that sometimes because I'm 'invisible'. I can't expect or begrudge well meaning, well educated friends for not knowing: the same friend asked me about partition, again knowledge that I've absorbed through my experience that I assumed others had. But the system is rigged to make people ignore or forget that. She appreciated and felt shocked by the global inequality that exists in the world we live in. I can't hold her accountable for an ignorance that wasn't her fault, but the product of a system that we both inhabit. I find it objectionable that she, for want of a better verb, enjoyed the novelty of the products of inequality. But it's no better that I despise being reminded so much that I dread visits to Bangladesh.

It reminds me of my privilege and my guilt that I got away when others couldn't.