We visited England recently and had a wonderful trip with family and friends. From London to St. Ives, people were warm and engaging, either asking us where we were from or guessing we were from the United States. We heard many times, “Oh, I KNEW you were from the U.S. because of your accent.” WHAT? What accent? Yes, the British had lovely, lilting accents, but I did not think that I had one, especially an “American” accent. Sometimes my southern drawl rolls out in certain words and phrases, but never did I think that I had an accent that would be recognized by those from another country as “American”.
Such is the value of travel, opening your eyes not only to other cultures and people but to your own culture and to yourself.
It then struck me that this new way of looking at my accent was exactly like white privilege. Like privilege, it was something off my radar until it suddenly blipped onto the screen. To be aware of its existence – to draw it out of hiding – there needed to be someone who heard my voice with different ears. My accent needed to be pointed out. In the U.S., surrounded by those with similar accents, it was invisible to me. Isn’t that exactly like white privilege? We can be unconscious of the things that define privilege until we are made aware by someone whose experience is different.
For example, when my daughter drives the two hours from her college to pick up a friend at the airport in San Francisco, my concern is her safety. I am thinking of other drivers. I want her to be alert and aware of those driving around her. When my friend Valerie’s son drives the many hours from south Florida to Morehouse College in Atlanta, her concern is his safety. Only she is thinking of dangers to her son that go beyond other drivers. Because he is a young black college student, different things go through her mind — will he be stopped by police, will he be detained, will he be killed? She is, of course, a wreck until she gets the phone call that he arrived at school. That so reveals my white privilege and Val’s frightening reality. This sucks.
Having been oblivious to my accent, I wonder where else I might be oblivious to privilege. What else has not been unveiled? Where else am I blind?
I will keep traveling, broadening my circle, and listening so that my eyes continue to be opened.