With all this media hoopla lately on discrimination, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own situation. Upon deep self-reflection, I know for a fact that I’ve been treated differently because of who I am and how I look. So who, may you ask, am I? I would say that I am a smallish white woman of average looks with a middle class upbringing and gentle disposition.
You may be wondering how I could ever play the racism card, so let me explain. Throughout my life things have been done to me and for me because of my physical appearance. People treat me a certain way due to their own preconceived ideas and notions of who I am. These superficial judgments are partly responsible for many details in how my life has unfolded.
If racism is being treated differently because of your appearance, then let me give you some examples of potentially racist things that have happened to me in the past few days. Just this week my local café owner gave me a free coffee because I had no cash on me, the nerve! There have also been countless times men have opened doors for me, allowed me to sit down on the train or to pass through when walking on a busy path. These things happen so often, they are ‘normal’ and I have come to expect this behaviour. By what is normal? Do all women get treated this way? I can’t help wondering what if I had coloured skin, was a larger woman or appeared to be of a low economic class, would I still be treated the same way? I just don’t know, and this question is really bothering me.
Being treated differently because of outward appearance was an obvious phenomenon when I was recently in remote regions of Nepal. Collecting data for my PhD took us to the most breathtaking and difficult to access villages where people were not used to seeing white people. Walking along the streets, the local people would curiously stare and children who were bold enough would race up to practice their English. It is often very difficult recruiting participants for research studies but this is not the case in Nepal. Once the word went around that a white medical woman was in town there were far more potential participants then we could possibly assess. There was one 65-year-old lady that really stood out to me as she told the translator her story. She shared that she had five children but had never been to a doctor before. She also disclosed that her husband was physically violent towards her and she had to sneak out of the house just to come and see me. There were other women who had to walk 6-8 hours over hilly terrain just to come and be involved in the study. These women were often illiterate, never having being to school before and had little say over their reproductive health. The women were so gracious, thanking and blessing me for spending some time with them. It was incredibly humbling to realise the contrast in our life experiences, where I have had every possible opportunity in my education, career and health while they had absolutely nothing.
We don’t have any say over where we are born, into what race or economic class. I am extremely lucky and blessed to be an Australian born Caucasian and into a family who always had more than enough and encouraged ongoing education. In all honesty, I have been very happy to accept all the perks of being a white woman without fully acknowledging how easy I’ve had it. I don’t consider myself a racist but now I can see how openly I’ve accepted preferential treatment because of my appearance and I can’t help feeling that I’m actually contributing to the problem. But, what can I do about this? It’s not my fault I was born into privilege. Well, I have decided that while there are many places in the world where women and children are starving, are living in refugee camps, have no say over their reproductive health or are mistreated because of their physical appearance, I am going to ensure that I give thanks for my many blessings. I am also going to make a big effort to open my eyes and heart to those around me. I can be the person who offers my seat, opens the door and buys a coffee for others rather than always being on the receiving end of grace. You never know, but these small acts of kindness may just create a tiny ripple in the racist culture that we all live in.