Obama and I: just another pair of privileged white kids

Brother from another mother.

I’ve led a privileged life.  I can’t complain.  I’ve never felt racism’s cold shoulder.  It either hasn’t been doled out my way, or if it has, I’ve been too stupid to notice.  I’ve been lucky enough to work as a computer programmer, in a system that is as meritocratic as it gets; Where I’m effectively shielded by an agnostic screen, and when confronted, I’m perfectly capable of writing in ALL CAPS as well as the next guy.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t discrimination.  I’m perfectly aware that women engineers have a slightly different story, and that ageism is real in my field, but *I* haven’t felt discriminated either at work, or in life. Until recently…

Granted, there is a large selection bias going on.  Just the fact that I write software for a living means that I’m surrounded by above average educated folk, and I am in a field that poor people find it difficult to enter– after all, you need a computer, and free computers aren’t as prevalent as free basketball courts in the hood.  Similarly with golf, it’s no coincidence that black poor kids don’t make it to the PGA tournament, but they do frequent the NBA.  And don’t get me started about Obama– he was just a white kid with white privilege who coincidentally happened to have dark skin.  Look at any pictures of him growing up, and see if you can spot ANYONE who isn’t white around him.

Anyways… Being the son of a university professor and a nurse, the deck was already stacked in my favor at birth.  When I hear African American friends complain that they get stopped on the street in the US, or that they get pulled over in their car for no reason twice a week, I usually roll my eyes and naively wonder “what are they *really* doing to anger the police?”.  That’s fine and dandy until it happens to you…again and again and again.

The first time it happened to me was in a residential neighborhood in Hong Kong, after hours.  I was lost and had to shield myself from the rain while I looked at the GPS.  In 45 seconds flat, two cops came out of the proverbial wood work (in a neighborhood where I had seen ZERO cops in 2 weeks).  One was a translator; the other one had a gun.  I was politely asked for “papers” and then grilled on what I was doing, where I lived, how long I was staying for, etc, etc.  I chuckled and dismissed the entire incidence as a one-off, until it happened again– two days later.

The next time it happened was in the financial district; I was lost again.  A friend was calling me, insisting that he was across the street from a 7-Eleven.  Considering there are about 50 7-Eleven’s per square mile in every Asian city, I was mildly upset.  I was looking around and glancing at my cell phone when two cops ninja’d themselves from a rooftop (as far as I could tell), and this time asked for papers while immediately putting their hands down my pants.  Unfortunately this was not the beautiful female cop combo in questionable movies.  The entire process felt invasive at best.

It happened days later, until I clued into the patterns that cause the Hong Kongese law enforcement to get their panties up in a bunch.  I’m a fairly intelligent person. I can notice patterns. I quickly figured out what not to do: wear a hat, use my beat up old backpack, look lost, etc.  I also have the benefit of a U.S. passport.  Foreign cops usually smile nervously and start apologizing as soon as they see an American passport.  Ultimately, I know my rights, and I can lawyer my way out of most things.  But what about those that can’t?  What about those with weaker passports, or without the benefit of lawyer friends?

Either way, it stopped happening with minimal changes on my part, but it opened my eyes.  I have options.  I can see the pattern.  I can change my behavior, and by nature I’m pretty easy going– I don’t give a shit about most things, and can brush off what would irritate most people.  No, it wasn’t learned.  It’s genetic: I was this way as a baby.

What if you don’t have a US passport?  What if all your friends aren’t white?  What if you were born into the wrong neighborhood?  What if this has happened so many times, it catches you on the one day when your spouse screamed at you and you’re already in a pissy mood?

I used to wonder what the big deal was about getting pulled over for no reason.  “Just show them you’re not doing anything wrong, and be on your way.”  But suppose you get pulled over so frequently that you need to leave home half an hour early just in case you need to spend those 30 minutes “showing them you’re not doing anything wrong”.

Is your boss going to give you a free pass for showing up late?  Or do you get one hour less of sleep a night because you have to leave the house early just in case you get stopped?  I for one thought this was made up shit, but when it happens over and over, you can’t help but feel for those who can’t just buy another backpack or move to another city / country.

I may laugh that all the Chinese look the same to me, but that cuts both ways.  Bin Laden, Jennifer Lopez (*), Danny Trejo and me, all look the same to them.  As a very nice lady in the Philippines, who upon learning that I was a computer programmer, once told me: “that’s nice…at least you didn’t join ISIS”.

So here’s to being more understanding: you may be living more of a privileged life than you think.

p.s. Yeah, Hadji just pointed out that I should take Jennifer out of that list: “No one is confusing her with your long lost distant relative.  Just saying…”.