What I Learned About Privilege from the Peace Corps

This post kicks off an occasional series where I ask folks to share about what they learned from an experience or job. I’m going to get things started today with an experience from the Peace Corps. Look for special guests in the future to share what they’ve learned. 

We were on our way to a youth conference when the bus stopped at an immigration checkpoint. I looked at my two pre-teen travel companions. As Dominicans of Haitian decent, they were often the target of discrimination and harassment. They handed their Dominican birth certificates to the guards, who motioned for us to follow them. I tried to contain my temper as we tripped over the other passengers, making our way off the crowded bus.

On the side of the road, the guard began to quiz the girls. “What’s your father’s name? What day were you born? At which hospital?” They had studied before we left, and answered each question directly, without hesitation. The guard turned to María and asked “What’s your name?” in Haitian Creole. Like almost everyone in the community, she’d grown up bilingual, and knew when to code switch. She paused half a second before replying in Spanish, “Speak to me in Spanish, please.”

Unable to rattle María, he turned to Altagracia and said “Say, say p—” And that’s when I lost it. All of the entreaties from Peace Corps to be a good representative of the USA boiled away as I decried the injustice of humiliating two girls on the side of the road. I was causing a scene because I was angry, but more than that, I was causing a scene because I could not let him finish that word. He’d done enough. I couldn’t undo it, I couldn’t get us back on the bus, but I could make sure he did not finish that word.

He was going to say “perejíl”: parsely. It was the word thugs, vigilantes, and soldiers used in the 1937 massacre to distinguish dark skinned Dominicans from Haitian immigrants. Fail to roll the “r” and the mob beat you to death. I couldn’t let him finish that word. I couldn’t let him ask Altagracia to say “perejíl.”

The bus driver was María’s cousin. He vouched for us, and the guard, either bored or convinced we were too much trouble, let us continue on our way.

We sat in silence for a moment before María spoke. “Alison,” she said “what really bothers me is that he never asked for your papers.”

And she was right. No one had asked for my papers. I was white, an adult, and painfully, obviously American. Had they asked, they would have discovered that my green card had expired a month prior.

I had studied white privilege. I’d noticed it and called it out in the states and abroad. But sitting silently on the bus with two girls who’d just been made to feel ashamed, made to deny their culture, while I got off unscathed… I carry that experience with me as I move through life, trying and sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing but always deeply committed to being an ally, to people of color and especially youth. Because that is the definition of privilege: When others are being stopped, questioned, and forced to justify their existence, no one even asks you. You could just keep traveling.

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