A Lifetime of Privilege

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Michelle Mertz, M.D., Assistant Professor at UVM Larner College of Medicine and member of the Global Health Leadership Team

Having been on your elective for some time now, the initial shock of being in an unfamiliar environment may have subsided. Hopefully you feel more confident and comfortable. Perhaps you are also starting to feel less intrigued, more emotionally fatigued, and frustrated with certain aspects of the culture surrounding you. Initially your efforts may have been focused on finding similarities with the people in your host country, but fatigue sometimes causes a shift toward focusing on differences.

By now, all of you have likely experienced being stared at, touched without consent, or having  general assumptions made about what kind of person you are based on your name, nationality, or skin color. You are acutely aware of looking and sounding very different from the local people. Do you feel out of place? Judged? Scared? For many of you, this is your first time being a minority. This aspect of travel can be the most powerful learning experience, but also the most challenging.

 Consider the experience of a black person in the United States, particularly in wealthy white neighborhoods or small towns like those in Vermont. He/she often stands out and notices as many white people instantly pass judgment, stare, and pull their wallets closer. On the contrary, white Americans can spend their entire lives feeling “normal,” inconspicuous from everyone else around them. This comfort constitutes a substantial component of white privilege. But imagine going through life in the United States always looking different from your peers in school or work. Try to consider that although the locals may approach you, touch you, or overzealously try to befriend you, at least they are not scared of you. Rather, they are curious and want to learn about you. Although your conspicuousness may cause insecurity, you still have the tremendous privilege of being safe.

Recall orientations and simulations you underwent during pre-departure weekend. Recall the negative first impressions and assumptions made by each group about the other, before everyone gained a better understanding of the reasons each group behaved a certain way. While this demonstrated a more extreme example in which all people from the same culture exhibited shared marked behaviors, it was meant to highlight how we can be overcome by emotions and judgements when we feel like we don’t belong, don’t understand, or are not in charge.

I encourage you to embrace the discomfort you are feeling and be present with it. Knee-jerk reactions like feeling angry, insulted, or wanting to leave are not productive. Try using these experiences as opportunities to reflect on why you are feeling so challenged, and to what degree your feelings are a result of a lifetime of privilege.

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