Privilege is something that has often been discussed in recent years but rarely understood. One group of people that is often overlooked but could potentially explain the issue to those who enjoy privilege are people of mixed ethnicity. In this post, I want to shed some light on the issue from my own perspective and experience.
For a brief overview, suffice it to say that I am half Bulgarian Turk, half German. If you search the internet for the history of Bulgarian Turks you will find out that we migrated to the Balkans from Central Asia centuries ago during the Ottoman Empire. Some Bulgarian Turks even have Tatar ancestors. There is a great phenotypic diversity among all Turks, not just in Bulgaria. On the one end of the spectrum there are blonde and blue-eyed Turks, on the other end there are Turks that look very Asian. Many in my father's family look white, but one of my uncles looks clearly Asian.
This kind of diversity usually brings with it a different approach to race and ethnicity. There is a sort of ambiguity, especially in the diaspora, which could be compared to Latin Americans living in the US. I believe this can be a key towards a better understanding of how privilege works, because while where you fall on the spectrum has an impact on how others perceive you it doesn't necessarily define how you identify.
How Privilege Works
People that are part of the normalized group don’t have to consider discrimination and are usually not aware of it. While they can have very difficult lives they don’t usually have difficult lives because of their identity. A man who is poor is not poor because he is a man, and a straight person does not remain unemployed because they are straight, etc. Often, people with privilege question those of us who have experienced discrimination because they cannot understand our experiences simply because they never faced similar situations. Oppressed people understandably react with frustration when privileged people ignore our struggles.
It's important to remember how all of these factors intersect and that many people experience some sort of privilege in one setting but are disadvantaged in other situations. While a gay man will experience male privilege he will be oppressed for his sexuality. His different identities will place him on a different level in different circumstances.
People who are of mixed ethnicity and pass for the normalized group have a different experience in that we usually experience privilege until the moment our "real" identity is uncovered.
Because of this and the comparison with experiences of other members of our families, we have come to pick up the subtleties of privilege very quickly.
My Personal Experience
Growing up in Germany, I was never immediately recognizable as a person with a “migration background” as Germans like to call it. (Please keep in mind that while race is a factor in Germany, ethnicity and religion usually play a larger role in the discourse.)
In fact, I never stood out in any country that I have been to. In everyday interactions, most Germans assumed me to be fully German (with few exceptions over the decades), in Canada and Greece, I fit in completely, and in all the countries I have traveled to people initially assumed me to be from there until they realized I don’t speak the language or have an accent.
This means that I am not exposed to the everyday racism that a person of color would have to face in stores, at the bank, or in any other setting where first impressions count.
On the contrary, when I traveled with my Hindu ex-boyfriend he was searched at the airport, while I, the Muslim, was not even noticed. As a Muslim woman who does not wear hijab I thus experience less Islamophobia than non-Muslim brown people. (Keep in mind here that while women face additional discrimination we are always seen as less threatening than our male relatives. I entered Canada on several occasions without any issues, while my brother who is even lighter than me was taken aside for more questioning after the officer looked at his name.)
Often, not “looking the part” means that you end up overhearing conversations that were not intended for you because people are not able to categorize you. Other times, people try to choose your identity for you: “Well, you are only half-Muslim, so it’s okay.”
In school, my Egyptian friend and I were always uncomfortable when, in music class, we had to sing the German anthem which talks about the German “fatherland” or, worse yet, a really bizarre song about coffee, warning children not to be like Muslims because that drink of Turks is not for children. In those moments, the privilege of not being immediately recognizable as "not quite German" stops working.
What gives me away is my family name. As I have mentioned in my German-language post on migration and identity in Germany, the moment that my family name is revealed, attitudes towards me change. I am asked where I am (really) from, I am complimented on my German and told that I “barely” have an accent (I have absolutely no accent whatsoever), and after this initial bewilderment over the fact that I am not as German as expected come the questions on how I position myself. I have to explain how I identify, how comfortable I feel communicating in German (my first language), and, of course, what I have to say about my religion.
What makes matters more complicated is that my father was already a minority in his country of origin. When he and his friends were arrested for listening to Western music, his friends were more quickly let go, while a police officer held a gun to my father’s head saying: “I will shoot you, you fucking Turk.”
Privilege is not having to worry about things like that and not even having to be aware of them. It means when you are randomly picked at airport security it really was random. It means that if your child gets into trouble they will not face additional difficulties merely due to their name, ethnic group, or religion. Please consider the psychological stress that having to deal with this kind of discrimination and oppression causes people.
I mentioned before that women are considered to be less threatening than men, and there is another context where this becomes very important and that is when going out: "What are you?/Where are you from?" That seemingly innocent question is one I have most often heard going out because German men tend to fetishize non-German women. For some reason, while in everyday life I pass as fully German, every single time I went out over the years I have had multiple men ask me about my ethnicity. Non-German men, on the other hand, face more stigma in such settings and are often not even allowed to enter clubs because of the owners' racist policies.
Playing Us off against Each Other
There is another layer to that discrimination, however, and that is when people tell a person who passes for someone from the normalized group that they don’t know or understand discrimination. When done by members of the normalized group it's another way they try to downplay their bigotry as well as an attempt to silence our voices. “If you didn’t tell me you were [enter ethnicity] I wouldn’t even know so what do you even have to say on the matter?” All the while, these people obviously don’t care about those who experience far more aggressive forms oppression than we do.
The idea that my identity depends on whether or not the normalized group will accept me as part of their own is a dangerous one. For centuries, marginalized groups have been played off of each other. My own group participates in discrimination against Roma in Bulgaria trying to to improve our own status. This does not work. If your right to live is dependent on the group in charge it can just as easily be taken from you. Don't forget that German Jews were full German citizens, many of them not even practicing their faith anymore, but when the moment came this didn't matter, their lives didn't matter, they were not considered equal. And so, even though I’d be classified as white in the US despite my Central Asian ancestry, this classification will mean very little in the event of a real registration and/or ban of all Muslims if I were to travel there.
As marginalized groups, we cannot wait until the normalized group accepts us. Our lives matter whether or not they accept us as equal. The fact that Germans now tell me “but you’re German” can’t really do much to erase high school memories of being told that I’m everything but German. When my sister was told that people with her hair and her last name don’t get accepted to good schools you don’t simply remove such memories by now telling her that she’s German. Rather we remain in a vulnerable spot where those belonging to the normalized group get to decide just what our identity should be at any given moment.
On the other hand, those who don't pass as members of the dominant group are often skeptical towards those of us who pass for the normalized groups. Some may think that we are not reliable enough in our support because we can blend into the group of the oppressor.
By and large, the experiences of mixed-ethnic people have been ignored, and we are asked to position ourselves on one side or the other, when, in fact, we don’t quite belong in either group. When we experience being silenced by the normalized group and get hostile reactions from the marginalized group this puts us in a third group that lies at the intersection of privilege and discrimination. Thus there is also a debate on monoracial privilege as people with mixed backgrounds are much less likely to find individuals or groups catering to their specific needs. This is not to say that a biracial person with one black parent and one white parent has it “worse” than someone whose parents are both black. But remember that everyone has certain privileges and disadvantages in their lives so it is possible to be oppressed but still have privilege in some situations, such as being able to find social settings with members of your own ethnic group.
Privilege is not a myth as so many people like to claim. As a mixed-ethnic, passing person I can assure you that privilege exists because I both have it and don't. Let's remember that in order to fight the systems of oppression we need to unite in our struggles and not let those in power divide us. Together we are stronger, and they know this and try to keep us divided along the lines of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, etc. We have to form a strong intersectional movement to succeed.
If you pass for a member of the dominant group but identify strongly with a marginalized group I'd like to hear from you in the comments.
Half Bulgarian Turk, half German living life as an expat in Greece.