It’s a weird experience to be a part of a privileged visible minority. People notice you no matter how hard you try to blend in. They recognize you even if you’ve never actually met. They honk at you and call out to you and try to get your attention. They talk about you under their breath (or sometimes out loud in front of your face). They watch out for you because they aren’t sure you know how to navigate their country and they want you to feel safe and welcome. They conspire to take you down a notch because you look like a walking wallet, even if you are living on a volunteer stipend.
I first became acutely aware of my new status as visible minority when a teacher at work mentioned that she sees me walking to work every day – I’m the only white person she passes on her drive in. Since then, I’ve been mistaken more than once for another white person. One boy in the after-school program at the Y keeps asking me to take out my contact lenses to prove that my eyes are blue-green and not actually brown. I get called “Whitey” as often as I get called “Sweetie” by cat-callers in the street.
This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced being a part of a visible minority, but it will be the longest time I’ve spent in this circumstance. As I ease into the ‘culture shock’ element of my adventure, the feeling of being on display grows more and more uncomfortable.
My privileges add a sharp edge to my discomfort. I chose this experience, while visible minorities the world over often have less autonomy over their racial circumstances. Any time I feel tired of being a visible minority, I can escape via the media and entertainment industry; this year’s Academy Awards showed this isn’t necessarily the case for other races. Thanks to many complex biases, I generally get treated very well as a white person; non-white visible minorities throughout the world usually do not enjoy this special treatment.
It’s pretty easy to be cynical about my discomfort with being a visible minority. It feels very precious to squirm under the gaze of those around me; even writing about this aspect of my experience feels like white guilt. I haven’t yet figured my way through this part of my life in Jamaica, and I’m not sure my experience of privilege and my experience as a visible minority will ever be separate. For now, I am approaching both with humbleness and patience, and I hope I will learn some big truths as I stumble along.