Ferguson shooting prompts Maine immigrant’s exploration of white male privilege

IMG_8952It’s not my normal week to write a column, but I was inspired by some happenings in the news on Monday and pitched this to my editors.

I had to run it by the powers that be because it’s somewhat more serious in subject matter, and I was concerned about its potential to piss people off.

It didn’t turn out as controversial as I had envisioned, and I’m not terribly happy with it, but perhaps you’ll like it, or at least see my point.

This week, tensions rose once again in Ferguson, MO., after a grand jury decided not to indict the police officer involved in the shooting of an unarmed black teenager.

It was the culmination of a process that took 114 days, as of Sunday. The decision didn’t sit well around the country, with protests and rallies held from coast to coast and even as close by as Portland.

As part of my day job, as the Web editor for CentralMaine.com, I essentially spend 40 hours a week with one eye on Twitter, watching for breaking news or tip-offs in our coverage area.

But through my own Twitter account, I follow a lot of journalists and other thoughtful, intelligent writers from all around the nation who share their perspectives on everything from professional basketball statistics to the best way to load up your plate at Thanksgiving, and everything in between.

So it stands to reason that, over the course of the past 114 days since Michael Brown was shot and killed, I’ve read a lot of analysis and opinion about what happened in Ferguson.

One of the underlying themes has been “white male privilege,” which implies that that particular demographic is afforded – whether subconsciously or openly – a great deal of leeway in today’s society. That implication has been applied to the white police officer involved in the shooting.

With Twitter being what it is, it’s been impossible to avoid both sides of the debate, and I’ve been exposed to a great deal of users (many white males) who’ve loudly argued that white male privilege is in the imaginations of those outside of that demographic.

I can’t pretend to have a deep understanding of the complexities of race relations in the United States, but what I can do is say this: as both an outsider and a new immigrant, white male privilege is absolutely a real thing.

As far back as 2012, I was applying for jobs in the U.S., hoping to catch the interest of an employer who would then sign off on a work sponsorship and I could fulfill my dream. I applied for very literally hundreds of open positions (including, strangely enough, this one). I never got a single bite.

So imagine my sheer relief when I first moved to here, a few days before last Thanksgiving, with a green card in hand. It still boggles my mind that within three weeks of my initial arrival as a permanent resident, I’d secured a job and an apartment, with a minimum of fuss. I’ve had a very fortunate, and very smooth, landing.

As I got more settled in to life in Augusta, I started thinking more about it. There were bureaucratic entanglements I had to navigate – getting my drivers licence from scratch, applying for and understanding the terms of a bank loan, working out what sort of treatment I was entitled to under my work-provided healthcare plan. If you’ve been reading this column since January, you’ve been along for the ride with me.

But no matter how frustrating some of these processes were for me, I couldn’t help but wonder, “How the hell do immigrants from other backgrounds get over all these hurdles?”

I have the distinct advantage of being a young white male from an English-speaking country whose accent is generally regarded as something ranging from amusing to attractive. The guy at the Augusta Bureau of Motor Vehicles who gave me the rundown on how to get my license was fascinated by the fact that an Australian had moved to Maine in the middle of winter.

The healthcare system strikes me as the place that has to be hardest to navigate for those from countries where English isn’t the first language. When I tried to make my first doctor’s appointment a couple of months ago, I had a fleeting thought for the first time that maybe, just maybe, moving here wasn’t a good idea and that I should head back to Australia. That’s how intimidating the process was for me, and I speak English.

Luckily, I know someone on the other side of the coin. This week I reached out to Mark Mugo, a Kenyan citizen who recently immigrated to Houston, Texas, on a lottery green card. He’s also been keeping a blog of his experiences. I thought my driver licensing experience was bad – it took me six long, cold weeks to get my ticket to ride – but Mark’s was a lot longer.

“[The] DMV has been one of the agencies that I’ve really experienced lots of [bureaucracy],” he told me via email. “It took me four visits to get the written exam and nearly as many visits before I could do the [driving] one. There is nothing much I could do about the timings and requirements set out by them.”

And where I all but waltzed into a job – my Social Security number hadn’t even arrived when I received the offer here, let alone my actual green card, which took three months – Mark’s experience was a great deal tougher.

“It wasn’t easy to set up. I’m still in the process of setting up,” he told me. “I’ve been working for a month now … I waited for over two months before my green card arrived. Most work places needed to see more than the stamp in the passport.”

It’s certainly not my intention to draw conclusions about Mark’s difficulties in weaving his way through red tape hurdles due to his nationality, but it’s difficult to disagree with the notion that being white and male in America has its advantages. In saying that, all of my experience as a resident has been in Maine, the least racially diverse state in the U.S. As I mentioned earlier, I certainly can’t pretend to be an expert on the racial politics of this country, but I feel my adjustment period wouldn’t have been any more difficult in more diverse parts of the nation.

Unfortunately, I’m sure many immigrants have a tougher time of it.

“So far I haven’t experienced open racism per se,” Mark Mugo told me.

“I was once shouted at by a white guy as I was cycling in the neighborhood. To this day I don’t understand why he cussed at me. Was it that I was cycling on the opposite side of the road from which he was driving from, or it was because of my color? I’m not sure.”

I can count myself extremely lucky that the worst I’ve had is being called “Kiwi” by my wiseguy bartender friends looking to get a rise out of me. If that’s not white male privilege, I don’t know what is.

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4 thoughts on “Ferguson shooting prompts Maine immigrant’s exploration of white male privilege

  1. What I find interesting is as a white immigrant, as long as we don’t open our mouths, we can almost ‘spy’ on people and observe their attitudes to other less-white immigrants. Almost as if we are involved in a participant observation study as the observer, of white privilege. There have been a number of times when I have been in groups of people when racist or anti-immigrant views have been aired, but I know these views would not be aired if I were more ‘viably’ a non- American white. But that of course is not anywhere close to the experience of immigrants and minorities who have to live the other side of white privilege.

  2. What I find interesting is that as white male immigrants, right up to the point we open our mouths, we can almost be a ‘spy’ on white privileged society, as if we are participant observers, which allows us to often observe white privilege attitudes. Until of course we try to join in , then the accent gives it away, and everyone looks a little embarrassed and someone says ‘present company excepted’. While that only gives a glimpse into the everyday lives of non-white immigrants and minorities, it means I can step back and see actual instances of white privilege in everyday life, and makes me realize how prevalent it is, in whiter-than-white Maine.

  3. What I find interesting is that as white male immigrants, right up to the point we open our mouths, we can almost be a ‘spy’ on white privileged society, as if we are participant observers, which allows us to often observe white privilege attitudes. Until of course we try to join in , then the accent gives it away, and everyone looks a little embarrassed and someone says ‘present company excepted’. While that only gives a glimpse into the everyday lives of non-white immigrants and minorities, it means I can step back and see actual instances of white privilege in everyday life, and makes me realize how prevalent it is, in whiter-than-white Maine.

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