Just like the way we look, or our names, the way we sound can conjure up people’s deep prejudices and I’ve seen it happen too many times.
I, someone who has been mistaken for a mzungu multiple times ordering an Uber, will watch a Somali person or family get such terrible service at a restaurant or difficult treatment at immigration, which gets me nervous, only to find such lovely attitudes when I approach and say hello.
The number of times that I’ve heard “oh you speak so well” or “I didn’t expect you to…” I look the way I always have and that has never put me in a position of doubting myself, so the surprise or the change in attitude that I witness isn’t as a result of me jumping through hoops, it’s because I defy the prejudices you have doubled down on in your mind.
Now because we have all been conditioned by our environments to the ages that we are now, I do believe that we all hold some level of prejudice. The difference is whether we believe in them or whether we believe that we ultimately know nothing and want to learn about people different from us.
I went with my mum to the dentist this morning and she explained to the receptionist that she didn’t have an appointment but she would appreciate if the receptionist could speak with the dentist after he is done with the patient he is in with and tell him that it’s Mulki, she has an emergency and could he squeeze her in. Simple. The receptionist, very bothered by the way, gave the longest, most dismissive explanation as to why she wouldn’t go ask because he has a packed day. Somewhere in the middle of that I stepped in and asked her to take a breath because 1. we understand and 2. no one is here to argue with her. I then went to make a phone call and came back to my mother telling her she didn’t appreciate her tone and since the receptionist can’t treat everyone with the pleasantries that the receptionist was showing the white people around, she won’t return to this practice. The lady then turned to me and started explaining, with a smile, that the dentist will see her but that she wants to leave. I simply cut her short and said “my mother doesn’t need a go-between or a translator, if she told you she is never coming back then that is 100% on you”
This is a story about the basics of our interactions with one another – dignity and respect are the minimum you can show someone. Now my mum has a thicker accent and I sound the complete opposite, this woman, like many before her, think that I will somehow stand with them in their stereotyping. That I will look at someone who’s first language isn’t English and think they are aren’t as intelligent. Have we forgotten that the only reason we speak English is because the British colonised most of the world? This isn’t a language of pride or beauty for me, it’s necessity.
There is a social immunity that certain people are afforded when they sound a certain way or speak certain languages. Many people will find languages intertwined with their identity and whether we like it or not languages are not treated equally. They can inform your political, social and economic experiences in life. People who emigrate to or seek refuge in English-speaking countries and don’t speak English will find themselves at a disadvantage since everything around them is written in English. They may hold doctorate degrees but can’t pass an exam in their new ‘home’ because they don’t speak the language. But when English speakers visit countries where the native language(s) isn’t English, they will still be able to find signs and instructions in English…that is privilege and the level of power English has.
Privilege is nothing more than having an unearned benefit or advantage one receives in society by nature of their identity
Carrying privilege on your tongue, like any other privilege, isn’t a bad thing unless you abuse said power or believe that it makes you better. I think it’s important for us to reflect on our privileges and not only learn to have empathy for people in different circumstances from us but also to understand that yes, certain things may not directly affect you but any oppression is directly saying that someone else is less than, and we all have a responsibility towards one another.
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out,Martin Niemöller
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out,
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out,
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.”
I can understand why people get defensive when confronted about their privileges. Many times it’s framed in a way where people internalise it, rather than people having conversations about how they can help each other understand. That’s where we can all begin from, check our own prejudices and ensure they aren’t subconciously influencing our day-to-day discourse and behaviour and to meet people half way and communicate with them about your thoughts and have a discussion.
We’re more alike than we are different, let’s start there.
Let me know of your experiences regarding privilege down in the comments.