A few months ago, I was talking to a Honduran friend, commiserating about the busy, four-lane highways that cut through much of the city and often don’t have crosswalks or overpasses. The only way to cross them is to dart from lane to lane, like a live-action Frogger game.
“At least,” I said, “when the cars see you waiting, they slow down and let you across.”
My friend looked at me and snorted, “They let you across,” she said, and I was instantly aware, more than usual, of my blonde hair, light eyes, pale skin.
For weeks, I couldn’t get this exchange out of my head. It was as if I discovered that the sky was blue, but only for me. That sugar was sweet for me, but not for other people. Cars stop for me. I knew that people saw me differently here, and treated me differently, but I hadn’t realized how the magnitude of this difference could manifest itself in something so minute.
I’ve written before about being a privileged immigrant, and the advantages I receive automatically because of the language I speak, the color of my hair and skin, and the upbringing and education I received. But this conversation made me start to think about the smaller privileges I receive without even realizing it, as if I spend my life gliding through automatic doors that everyone else has to open by hand.
It’s important to document injustices. It’s also important to document privileges. One exists on the back of another, at the expense of another, and so in my efforts to understand my place in this country and in this world, I started documenting some of the ways, large and subtle that cars stop for me.
Early Sunday morning, my (white, blonde, Danish) friend and I were picking up groceries for a gathering. We were surprised and taken aback when the cashier refused to sell us the two bottles of wine we had picked out. We didn’t realize that Honduras has a “dry law” that prevents the sale of alcohol on Sundays. We pleaded, but the cashier was resolute. As we were talking to the cashier, a man approached us, introducing himself as the owner of the entire grocery store chain.
“What seems to be the problem?” he asked. We explained our predicament—we wanted to buy wine, but weren’t allowed to for another few hours. But, see, we’re already here, and…
“Go ahead and buy it,” he said, waving his hand at the cashier.
“But…” the cashier started to object, opening his mouth, and then closing it.
“If there’s a fine, I’ll pay it,” the man said magnanimously, thanked us for shopping, and walked away to observe another part of his empire.
The cashier scanned and bagged our groceries and our wine, his eyes a little buggy. “Do you know who that was?” he asked us. We didn’t, really. Or care, really. We had a gathering to prepare for.
We’re driving. “Stick your hand out the window, I want to merge,” my friend says to me. Traffic is backed up for ages; there are long lines of cars honking to get in.
“This is hopeless,” my friend laughs, “Stick your head out.” I stick my head out, and wave my arm again. The car in front of us brakes, flashes his lights, and lets us into the lane.
I walk into a department store with a backpack slung over my shoulder. “Ma’am, your bag…” says the security guard at the front door. He wants me to check my backpack at the packages counter, but I’m in a hurry and that seems minorly annoying. Suddenly inspired, I put on my best blank smile and wave at him, pretending not to understand. “Ma’am…” he starts, then decides not to pursue it, and lets me walk into the store.
I want water, but I don’t want to buy a bottle. “I’ll just ask for some from this coffee shop,” I tell a friend.
“They won’t give it to you, you need to buy something,” she tells me.
“Watch me,” I wink. Two minutes later, I’m walking out with a plastic cup of water.
“Oh, to be a Gringa!” my friend says, rolling her eyes.
I walk into the lobby of the Marriott for a press conference event wearing pants a size too big and thrift store shoes. “This way, ma´am,” says an usher, pointing to the event. He doesn’t question whether I belong there. I don’t question it either.
I know the words that are forming on your lips. You get these things because you ask for them. Because you’re bold, or even shameless. Because Hondurans are kind and generous. These are partial answers. Any boldness I have, for example, is beside the point. Why wouldn’t I walk with the confidence that cars would pull to a halt, if that’s what they’ve always done for me? Why wouldn’t I speak with the confidence of being heard if my whole life my words have mattered? Why wouldn’t I ask for special treatment if it has never occurred to me that I don’t deserve it?
I had to be taught about micro-aggressions: the steady accumulation of indignities that, taken alone, can be seen as minor, and yet wear on a person’s dignity and patience. I want to be better about recognizing their cousin—micro-advantages, micro-privileges that lead to a world that bends in my direction, that is softer with me, gentler.
The traffic streams by—cars honk, motorcycles weave in and out, pedestrians gather at the curb to wait for a break in the steady flow. I step a foot off the curb and one car whips past me, but the next one slows. Boldened, I take another step, looking left and right, and the car slows to a stop. The people on the curb push forward with me, lane by lane, cutting through traffic. We cross the street, and the cars stop for us.
Katerina Parsons (’15) lives in Washington D.C., where she works in advocacy at Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington office and studies international development at American University’s School of International Service. She spends a lot of time thinking about US policy towards Central America and North Korea, writing, singing, and searching for the city’s best pupusas (suggestions welcome).