When ‘White Privilege’ Becomes Uncomfortably Familiar

Author: Nonie Tuxen, PhD candidate in the Sociology of Education at the ANU. Nonie’s research explores youth engagement with international education and how class status is correspondingly (re)produced in Mumbai, India. Nonie is also a keen photographer – you can follow her @bombayliving on instagram.

One of the unintended consequences of my fieldwork in Mumbai was that I spent ten weeks in bed with typhoid.The other was that I met my husband.

The latter event means that Mumbai is now my permanent home, rather than a site of cultural intrigue demanding my scholarly attention. The process of making Mumbai home is not always sunshine and rainbows – perhaps giant Ganesh statues and Bollywood dance routines would be more fitting imagery (there is, in fact, a pounding human procession outside my window right now, hoisting a giant Ganesh to be submerged in the ocean). But I digress.

In moving from Australia to India, everything – my daily routine, my home life, my relationships, my work and career, my aspirations, my sense of self, underwent some form of turbulence in which the strange becomes familiar and the familiar, strange. However, one of the most striking and uncomfortable transformations from my ‘old’ to my ‘new’ life is how dramatically my position of ‘privilege’ has shifted.

The ‘Old’ Life

I grew up in the Melbourne suburb of Frankston, which – thanks largely to the Chaser’s War on Everything and The Footy Show – has become infamous ‘bogan’ territory. Throughout my adult life, particularly within university spaces, people are consistently wide-eyed-jaw-dropped-shocked when they find out where I grew up. Their surprise gives me a great sense of pride, as though I have emerged unscathed from some trauma, like an undead Japanese horror film child clawing its way to the surface. This is, of course, an over-dramatisation and a far cry from the reality of my upbringing, but it speaks volumes about the assumptions that people make about a well-spoken, well-educated white woman.

So, let me take a moment to check my privilege: I am a middle class white woman from a ‘good’ family. I have experienced poverty during my childhood, but I have never felt systematically disadvantaged. Society never led me to believe that I could not realise my dreams if I just worked hard. I have always felt free to pursue my passions. However, I have equally been aware of my position firmly in the middle, perhaps lower-middle, strata of urban Australian society. I would say that I am a moderately privileged person in Australia, an average Joanne, if you will.

The ‘New’ Life

First, some context: India is a complex, hierarchical society (or rather, societies, because one cannot possibly speak of a singular India). Scholarly research demonstrates that caste and class are the fundamental socio-economic stratifiers in contemporary India, though most people will tell you that caste no longer matters (a defensive view that is problematic for a number of reasons). In concert with caste and class, factors like religion, community, ethnicity, familial occupation, education, etc., create layers of distinction.

Now, enter white woman from Australia. In any developing country, my privilege is multifaceted; it is embedded in the passport I carry, the currency in which I earn and spend, the places I live and go, my level of education, the English that I speak, the food that I eat, the modes of transport I take, and the fact that I have choices in most of the above. One thing in which I don’t have a say, however, is the colour of my skin; which is also the most visible and powerful form of privilege that I possess.

Whiteness is one of the most universal markers of privilege. In India, skin tone is a marker of status; the fairer one’s skin, the greater their (presumed) advantage. This is well documented in relation to the arranged marriage market, in which ‘dark skinned girls’ are, appallingly, often thought to be less beautiful. Many have observed that this oft-called ‘obsession’ with fairness is an echo of India’s Vedic traditions and colonial history.

Being white in India is a fraught experience, but it undoubtedly affords me greater privilege than I have in Australia. I have access to people, places and experiences that would not be possible or likely for me in Australia. This is not because I’m particularly wealthy (in some circles, far from it), or because I’m cool, or good company; the foot in the door is my skin, and perhaps my gender in some scenarios. The assumptions that are made about me in India are, on the whole, that I am an above-average Joanne.

Reconciling the Familiar/Strange

Like many before me, this ‘new’ life demands that I reflect on the role that whiteness has in a neo-colonial society, and how I experience my familiar skin in a strange environment.

Undergoing a massive jump in privilege has often been strange and uncomfortable, but I reluctantly concede that it can be enjoyable. I see why people desire to be upwardly mobile, and I have managed to successfully stumble into such a scenario – even though I object to any form of systematic discrimination, especially on the basis of race, class, gender, and so on. So, how do I reconcile my new life with the lessons I was taught in my old life?

I cannot change the colour of my skin, nor can I change history or society’s deeply ingrained reverence for fairness. I can, however, be vigilant to the privilege that whiteness affords and ensure that I do not unwittingly take advantage of this. It is easy to become entitled when it is offered to you, and takes a conscious effort to mitigate it.

                                                                                                                                                 [Image by Nonie Tuxen]

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