I was having drinks with a married couple who were both old friends (though I’d met the wife first). We had all visited Thailand earlier in the year. She had a complaint that my own better half once echoed. Everyone was looking at her husband. Like my better half, she was Southeast Asian. Like me, he was white. He protested that he hadn’t noticed any such thing, which, to her eyes, beggared belief. But I understood.
I also had a bit of a revelation. Why didn’t we notice (assuming it was actually happening)? Because, as white, heterosexual males, we always feel normal. The culture we live in reinforces that we are the norm. We set the norms. Even though we may be the only white guys for miles, wandering through a sea of capital-O ‘Other,’ we don’t feel out place. We never truly feel like the ‘Other.’ Even in a place where, by all rights and logic, we are the ‘Other.’ We didn’t notice any staring because, why would people stare? We always belong.
If you take it to absurd extremes, yes, you can find situations where we don’t belong. The classic/infamous/terrible cult classic, Cannibal Holocaust, for example. We, as white heterosexual males would feel a sense of not belonging in a situation where our party was being eaten by Amazonian cannibals. But even then, could we truly know what it is like to be ‘Other.’
Our better halves noticed the staring. Why? Because, as part of the ‘Other’ in America, they are attuned to it. To the reactions of the defining cultural group. Whether the reactions are good or bad is almost beside the point.
So this is part of white privilege. It is something that, no matter how enlightened or tolerant (which, when you think about, is a terrible word; ‘tolerant;’ how good of me to be ‘tolerant’ of others; how very… white of me) I feel I am (and, let’s be honest, in the eyes of the ‘Other,’ I may not appear so wonderful as I do to myself), I have not escaped, that maybe will never escape, and which will always be a wall between myself and true understanding of the challenge of being a person of color (in this case, but feel free to add in ‘woman,’ ‘LGBTQ,’ etc) in a society still defined by white privilege.