The Dilemmas of a Traveling White Guy

davidlivermore | October 19th, 2015 33 Comments

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Last week I walked into the Mumbai airport to check-in for my flight to Abu Dhabi. I was flying economy but as I entered the queue, the airline representative immediately said, “Right this way sir.” And just like that, I was escorted to the posh lobby and check-in section for Etihad business class passengers.

This hardly sounds like a dilemma, right? I was all too grateful to avoid the long lines winding around to the economy counter. But I felt a bit hypocritical. So I stopped the guy and said, “Actually sir. I’m flying economy today so I can just check in there.” To which he emphatically protested that this was where I belonged.

Throughout the next several steps in the process—baggage check, security screening, passport control, boarding etc.—I was directed through special lines for people “like me” with no one questioning why I was there while holding an ECONOMY boarding pass. This is a stark contrast from what happens when I stand in the premier boarding lines in the U.S. and some of my fellow passengers take it on themselves to police whether an interloper has slipped into the wrong line.

Earlier this month, I was staying in a luxury hotel in Dubai and I was walking with a Jordanian woman who was attending the same conference as me. She was also staying at the hotel and as we walked together to return to our respective guest rooms, the hotel staff stopped her and said, “Excuse me ma’am. This section is only for hotel guests.” She pulled out her room key to verify that she was staying there while I showed them nothing. And as we walked away, she said to me, “They think I’m a prostitute.” What?! I was determined to go back and set the record straight or see if maybe it was just that they recognized me and not her. She laughed and said, “No, No…I’m very sure that’s what they thought. But don’t go talk to them about it. It will just cause me more grief.”

The examples keep going. Some of the hotels where I stay overseas have an x-ray machine you have to walk through as you enter the hotel…unless you look like me. I’m consistently waved around the machine while my Chinese, Indian, and Arab colleagues are directed to go through it. And I’m routinely given the best places to sit in restaurants and cafes and granted access to exclusive lounges I haven’t paid to visit. (And this is one reason my family loves traveling with me!). Before I know it, I start to think I deserve this kind of treatment.

I’m not automatically given these kinds of perks back home. But the benefits I receive are often as real.

  • Many of my African American friends worry about whether their sons will be shot dead because they “looked” like they were up to no good.
  • People with “white sounding names” on a resume are 50% more likely to receive an interview in a U.S. company.
  • The average “attractive male” will earn $250,000 more in his lifetime than the average “unattractive male” will.
  • And people with northern U.S. accents are perceived to be smarter and more in charge than people with southern accents are.

My daughter just started film school at USC. She tells me that we’re more likely to see an “other worldly character” in a mainstream movie than we are to see an Asian woman. Aliens have more visibility in the “progressive” world of Hollywood than Asian females do, even though Asians make up 60% of the global population. The on-screen representation of Latinas is similar.

I’m equally troubled by the more subversive forms of bias that benefit me. I was very conscious that I did nothing to merit the business class perks I received last week. I knew I had only paid for an economy ticket. But when I get called back for an interview or look back at my accomplishments, it’s harder to know how much of it I earned and how much of it was enhanced by implicit assumptions that I’m a competent, successful guy.

What’s a culturally intelligent way to respond to these dilemmas? My typical modus operandi in these articles is to offer 4-5 practical takeaways. I’m not short on suggestions for how to respond to these kinds of realities—don’t be a bystander, use privilege to open doors for others, work for systemic change, etc. I’ve written broadly about these points and we teach seminars on it. But I spend so much time researching, teaching, and writing about this topic that it sometimes starts to become depersonalized for me.

So for today, I’m compelled to delay my impulse to teach other people what they should do and instead, to simply sit with the dilemma for a bit. I refuse to become paralyzed with shame for something that is much bigger than me; but neither do I want to too quickly assuage my responsibility. I want to keep feeling the rub of my experience versus the experience of most people in the world. And I never want to lose sight of the shared humanity that exists among all of us—from the sheik to the taxi driver.

Ironically, as I sat at my gate waiting to board my flight to Abu Dhabi, I was staring at an advertisement that says “Brown is in”, with a picture of a Bollywood actress and a magnum ice cream bar. I applaud Unilever for this kind of ad campaign and I hope they expand it to include darker faces (the woman in the ad looks as white as she does brown). But either way, it’s going to take a lot more than an ad campaign or 4 simple steps to address the ways our implicit assumptions limit our potential as individuals, organizations, and the world at large.

Tomorrow, I’ll be back to strategizing ways that cultural intelligence can better address these dilemmas. But for today—I’m sitting with the tension to think critically about how to responsibly steward the privileges I inevitably receive most anywhere I go. And I invite you to do the same.


[Stats from the research on implicit bias at Harvard University and the Media, Diversity and Social Change initiative at University of Southern California]

33 Responses to The Dilemmas of a Traveling White Guy

  1. Very insightful piece David. You have not only detailed
    “privilege”, more specifically “white privilege” but also the value and power of reflexivity to instill change. I think your reflections lay a great foundation to open up discussions on issues of color, race, representation, symbolism, white-privilege and why they might result in greater inequalities, disparities and oppression. I would like to take your permission to use this wonderful account as an example with my students. Thank you. Lala

    • Thanks for your kind words and feel free to use it however it’s helpful.

      • David this is a great article and I can identify quite well with it. Except that my experience as a white woman has a double edged issue. In a number of countries I have travelled, in the company of people who have “invited me” I receive the same deferential and privileged treatment you describe – no matter what I try to do to counter it. But as soon as I am alone in public, I am treated as if I were a prostitute and am subject to slurs, cat calls, unwelcome touching and men exposing themselves to me. And this for a woman over 50 who dresses very modestly. So I never know when one or the other of these stereotypes will kick in to mess me up. I long for a world where no one has special privileges and everyone is treated with respect. It seems to me that would solve this and many more issues we have been having as human beings for centuries. The question is, of course, getting there.

      • Love the article as I have received such treatment. In addition I have found at 6’6″ tall, an even more accommodating and privileges are provided in most Asian countries to people with my size. Where as in the US and Europe not so much.

        • Thanks, David. I experienced much of the same treatment in South America. If I waited in line in a bank in our city in north Brazil I was pushed to the front of the line (as they politely do for pregnant women and priests). In the airport in Bogota I asked a porter to check something for me and he saluted as if he worked for me and dashed off to care for my little baggage question. (And he guessed, correctly, that he would get a nice tip.) I sweet-talked my way to instant handling of travel papers in Brazil instead of a grumpy, “Get in that long line over there.” So there is a stretch between knowing how to function within the system and never expecting to be treated with privilege. Treating EVERYone with respect goes a long way in every culture. Thanks for all your encouraging teaching.

  2. Hi David,
    Loved reading your article and hearing your heart as you “sit with the dilemma for a bit”. Totally can identify where you are coming from. Thank you for keeping these dialogues open and honest.

  3. Thanks for sharing this story David. And thanks for brining up your compulsion for us to, “simply sit with the dilemma for a bit.” I am often asked, “What should I do in x, y or z situation in another culture.” Everyone wants a quick answer to these complex issues, but often there isn’t one right or wrong answer. Look forward to your follow ups to this.

  4. David, these are very powerful examples. I will use this blog post in an 8-week workshop I’m co-facilitating on race, racism, and racial equity. Thanks for exposing your white privilege in a thoughtful, unselfish way.

  5. David, thanks for living the message the way you do. Unfortunately we still have a long way to go on the issue of bias and bias treatment and the starting point is acknowledging that this exists and that it is not right nor fair and then the process begins to unravel it. I believe that more people in our workplaces are becoming aware and willing to confront these biases but it is a long journey ahead.

    I can safely say that as a black man from Africa, I am hardly ever mistakenly given vip access and even when I am entitled to it, I am double checked that it doesn’t feel so special.

  6. Great article Dave. Thanks for sharing about living in the ‘tension’. Hope to cross paths again soon!
    – Randy

  7. Thank you for getting me thinking about this in a fresh way.
    – Raul

  8. David what you experienced is referred to as White Privilege. You may want to read White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. by Peggy McIntosh. According to the author White privilege is a term for societal privileges that benefit white people in Western countries beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people under the same social, political, or economic circumstances. I have use the information when training on cultural competence and would be happy to train in this area.

    • Thanks Renee. I completely agree and use her work widely. My point was the importance of my own need to continue to reflect on these ideas that I so often teach to others.

  9. Wow David, it is refreshing to see you wrestle with this. One of the critical starting places is airing such and opening dialogue.

    I can attest to some of your experience, not because I’ve experienced. My wife and I are an interracial couple. There are some places (& people) where even though I have the answers and consistently respond, they continue to only address her.

    This is not that one particular racial group does this but the experience is varied in each place but similar when it does happen. Thanks for sharing

  10. Excellent article, commendably honest and perceptive. I’m a white male. Some years ago, I was walking up to Reception to check into a hotel where the annual Institute of Industrial Engineers conference was about to be held. I introduced myself to a black guy standing in line to check in — turns out he’s attending the same conference. The man at the reception desk said “Come right up, sir” to me, and looked right through the black guy as though he were invisible. I hurriedly blurted out “He was here first.”

  11. Thanks for the insightful article David. Unfortunately examples of White Privilege are not hard to find and it will be interesting to see how this evolves. I believe that as of about a year ago, minorities now outnumber Whites in the USA, but being in a minority never stopped the Raj or the Colonialists. Our mutual colleague Tom Verghese, who is Malaysion, tells a story of having had the reverse experience when waiting at the dentist and being assumed to be a taxi driver.

  12. David, thanks for this very inciteful piece that I’ve seen happen in many airports and hotels across Asia. I really like that you want to share your reflections on the experience too, as there are so many white men who just feel entitled to this type of treatment. Rather ironically, I’ve had the experience as a professional white woman of only having this kind of treatment (twice – at Mumbai airport!) when travelling on my own, having an ECON class ticket, but being swept up by the queue handlers with a group of white men standing behind me whom the handlers assumed I must be with as I couldn’t possibly be travelling on my own! Despite my protests and theirs, we were all sheparded together and ended up having a good laugh about it as we got on the plane – an interesting experience of sexism meeting cultural assumptions head on.

  13. What an insightful article, David. Thanks for making us think–instead of simply enjoying or even expecting perks that may come our way.

  14. Very insightful and reflective, David. Thanks for sharing openly and highlighting ‘white privilege’ in many parts of the world. The incident in the Dubai hotel reminded me of a similar experience that I had as your Jordanian colleague….there is still much to be done in the world!

  15. Actually, David. Peggy McIntosh addressed this topic years ago. Take a look.

    White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
    Privilege: an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day,but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. –Peggy McIntosh

    • I’ve seen Dr. Livermore masterfully discuss white privilege in an executive seminar and he writes about it in a couple of his books (and references Peggy McIntosh). Always important to check assumptions! =)

  16. Thanks for this piece, David. It’s always refreshing when privileged individuals recognize their privilege, and even more refreshing when they consciously sit “with the tension to think critically about how to responsibly steward the privilege.” Seeing the tangible results of a collective manifestation of that exercise would be even more refreshing…

  17. David – I would like to know what you think about why Indians, or Arabs, or other coloured folks disregard or disempower their own kind and grant privilege to the ‘white’ people like you mentioned in your experience?

    • @Anita. Now you’ve touched on something that I regularly contemplate. As you likely know, the research indicates that women often implicitly favor men over women for certain roles…black people may themselves unconsciously assume a white person in a white coat is a dr. and that the black person in a white coat is the lab tech…and the examples keep going. This runs deep and the messages are taught at an early age. The “why” is complicated and a mix of a long history of bias….but I think there are some small changes occurring in many places I go.

  18. Thanks David for your honest reflections.
    I know we have discussed these aspects of bias and white privilege before and recall doing the knapsack exercise with you years ago now in Hong Kong.
    Thank you even more for the wisdom to reflect, and sit with the discomfort rather than rushing to provide the practical take-aways.

  19. Thanks David for sharing this deep, personal insight. I’m still surprised on a daily basis by the bias of some. I grew up in a very segregated Africa and still use stories from my childhood to draw back to the corporate world today. Unfortunately there are still a lot of people out there (including some family members)with huge bias opinions. I liked the ‘sit with discomfort’, as I believe it is in the discomfort that true growth happens.

  20. David,

    Excellent: Insightful and refreshingly thorough…

    Resisting the temptation to move immediately to solution without more robust understanding is wise and a secret element to navigating the process of growth in the area of ethnicity, power, and cultural fluency.

    Thank you, David. This article is a forward from a friend. I will be a frequent reader.



  21. David, thank you for sharing your experiences and even more so for being honest about your feelings. I appreciate that you would take the time to reflect on the systemic biases that prevail and to spend time critically examining the situation. We need more people – of all races and cultures – to do the same. As a professional Black woman from the Caribbean living in North America, I often feel I need to apologize for being Black. We are made to feel that we are the cause of society’s ills. I ache for the Black men because they bear the brunt of this problem.

    I was born into a society that believes Whites are privileged and Blacks should be subservient to them even though the majority of our population is Black. This is the effects of slavery and even though we have moved a long way toward equality, there is a lingering element that still believes that the lighter your skin color, the more privileged you are.

  22. David,

    Thanks for this piece. This is very timely in my organization and I have already forwarded it for others to review and digest.

  23. Nailed it David! And when people like to throw in “Dr” it gets even worse. After nearly 30 years I find myself living with the cringe but not finding it gets any easier.

  24. Thanks for the great blog post, David. I have had the same experiences–sometimes aware of it, sometimes less so. There are additional compounding privileges (as others have noted) associated with social class (even more privilege when I am wearing a tie), education (academic titles), language (presence or absence of accents and perceived sophistication), and the less tangible benefits that come with being a confident comfortable privileged person.

    Best wishes,

  25. i find this extremely interesting as these I literally travel the world for my job.
    i am white, travel mostly economy & have never experienced this. Ever.
    Then again, I dont have my own blog, write books, or am known in any way. Btw – airline personnel, nice hotels, and sometimes even the tsa run passengers/customers names to learn about their backgrounds. And then give preferred treatment to those who they deem worthy
    The only time I unfort. get any sort of “special” treatment would have been in South Africa, for obvious reasons.
    I am curious, if you are in say, the Middle East…. a sheik with get all the best treatment possible.
    That sheik is not white.
    Could it all be more about status (or perceived status) than the color of your skin?

  26. David,
    This preferred treatment is due to two major reasons, a) American economy is tied to global economy, there is a great emphasis to appease American business (small or big) in developing countries, since it helps both ways. b) secondly there is a intense political journalism to please Americans in India to mutually benefit both countries. There are several lobbyists and efforts taken at all levels to treat Americans in better way to bring more business and coordinate & cooperate at political level. These treatments can’t be misconstrued as a special white treatment.