I am a straight, white, able-bodied, English-speaking, university-educated, sane, thirtysomething (for now), right-handed, non-smoking, union-card-carrying, employed, Canadian male who can pass as a Christian.
Every single one of those traits mentioned above gives me an advantage. The only thing I could possibly mention that puts me at any sort of disadvantage is that my hair has thinned a little on top, but (a.) who cares, really?, and (b.) it's in a decent holding pattern and won't go anywhere for decades. That, and I could probably lose a pound or two. But, really, I should jump out of bed every morning, kiss the floor, and thank the good little lord baby Jesus that I am who I am.
I've noticed something lately when I've seen a "diverse" set of people -- maybe a group of friends walking down the street or represented in the media -- crosses my visual path. Let's say there are five people, and one or two of them are non-white -- maybe you've got an Asian and a Black person in there, y'know, to add a little spice.
This would probably make the average white person comfortable and, frankly, feel pretty good about themself. "Oh, look, we have everyone! Aren't we great? Racism is so 19th-century, guys. I'm hella progressive."
But, wait, hold on a minute. Three or four of the five are still white, you knob; the space is still dominated by whiteness. Whites are running the show, just like we pretty much do everywhere else around here. Put yourself in the Black person's shoes: "Hey, I'm the only one like me here. The only one. And the dominant group isn't mine, it's the group that's always in charge of everything and tries to kick my ass pretty routinely. This is awkward."
I think one of the reasons I've noticed this is because my ladyfriend is Asian (born in Canada, though). Her family is all from Hong Kong, she grew up in an Asian-dominated suburb of Toronto, and a good percentage of her friends are Chinese, too. I mean, I can't (and won't) blame her or anything: it's both a matter of geography and familiarity. Ever notice how some Jewish people are pretty adamant about eventually partnering-up with other Jews? As a Jewish friend of mine once explained, "It's just easier this way; you know their back-story, you share a culture already." I can dig it.
As such, when there's a gathering (usually a birthday dinner (how does one group of friends have so many damn birthdays, anyway? I think it's a girl thing)), as there was about a week ago, I'm the only non-Asian in attendance. It feels a tiny bit awkward, but I think that's mainly because I'm the newest member of the group of girls-and-their-significant-others(-if-applicable). And, as I get to know this group of people better, the awkwardness is fading.
What if I wasn't white, though? Because of who I am, and because my culture is so ubiquitous in our society, (a.) my people are ususally in charge, and (b.) everybody already kinda knows our deal. As a result, it makes me feel like I can kinda slip into pretty much any group and become a part of it. With a few exceptions (e.g. a Black Panther meeting), I can probably just jump right on in and it'll be cool like the Fonz.
Years ago, I was in Chicago and had just gotten done a late breakfast at a diner (the fabulous White Palace Grill), and since I'd sprained my ankle the day before, instead of walking the 20 minutes or so to the subway, I took the bus. This diner is a little south of the Loop; traditionally, white people were on the north side of Chicago and Black people were on the south side... which I noticed right away when I got on the bus which was (a.) pretty full, (b.) I was the only white person on it, and (c.) everyone else was Black.
Now, I've been on buses and subways in Toronto where I'm the only white person, but it's never the case that everyone else is the same. Usually there'll be some Asians, some Black people, some South Asians, and assorted others. But not on that bus, no way. A completely new experience for me, and yes, I did feel a little awkward, but not threatened or anything at all: that's "white privilege" for ya. Not in the least...
...but, keep in mind that if the whole thing was reversed -- which it often and usually is -- I'd imagine that Black person would probably feel a few eyes following them around.
This logically translates into other countries, too. Let's say I was going around, I dunno, Mozambique. I walk into a restaurant in a non-touristy area of the capital, Maputo (yes, I had to look that up)... you don't think I'm gonna get some pretty extra-special treatment? I'd have to assume I would. Not that I want it; I'm a big fan of authentic, non-touristy experiences on my vacations abroad. I want the real deal. I want to be treated like a local. But I'm pretty sure I'd be a minor celebrity there: not just a curiosity, but an instantly-honoured guest.
Now flip that around. You're Black, and you walk into a non-touristy restaurant in Warsaw (or Peterborough, or Topeka). I'd say that, aside from being a curiosity, there's a pretty decent chance that at least one person in that place really, really, really doesn't want you in there. The odds are also good that there are several people who, to be a little less drastic, would feel more comfortable if you weren't in that place. You get the idea.
Swap out the Black for, oh, I dunno, a Muslim woman in a hijab.... oh lordy. Wow. I can't even imagine that. But if I was to walk into a restaurant in Riyadh or Karachi? "Oh, yes sir, right this way."
Changing this situation worldwide is just slightly beyond my ability. (I know I'm an influential guy, with this blog being having been read by literally tens of people over the past several years, but still, you know, I'm only one man.) And I don't know what I can do myself other than to (a.) recognize when this sort of thing happens, (b.) try to make others feel more comfortable and welcomed in white-dominated spaces, and (c.) back off a touch on the highly offensive accents in casual conversation.