When I was 24, I was alone in Bali on vacation (the above photo is one of the only ones I have left - my hard drive of photos crashed!). Several weeks before I arrived, there were two terrorists bombings back to back. Most tourists canceled their trips, but I didn't, believing it would not happen again (it didn't). Upon arrival, the first thing I noticed was the thickness of the warm, humid air. The second thing I noticed was that everyone seemed to stare at me. Without many other tourists around, I stood out everywhere I went.
For the first time in my life, I walked into rooms, down streets, got on buses, and was the only white person. I woke up with a newly found awareness that I was different than everyone around me, and that they were aware I was different, and there was nothing I could do about that. I felt an awareness of myself as a white American, which I had never had to think about before because I had been living in a world centered around white Americans.
Being in a world that didn't center around me threw me off and disoriented me in a way I couldn't handle. I crumbled like a leaf at the discomfort. After only a week, I was a total mess and I wanted to go home. I dreaded the idea that there was more to come, as I was supposed to continue onto Thailand and Laos from there.
I decided that I would call my friend Shawn, tell him how lonely I was, and let him tell me that yes, this was hard, and I should go home. I wanted someone to tell me my struggle was real and it was totally okay to not want to be there anymore. Shawn was the type of person who always knew what to say, and he had a wisdom and worldliness that I myself lacked.
I got out my calling card, pushed the thousand numbers it took to make an international call, and felt a wave of relief when he answered. I poured my heart out, cried, and complained about all the problems I was having. And then... silence. I waited for him to say something, for him to make it all better, but he was just silent for a long time.
Shawn, who grew up in the Caribbean, was at that time an illegal resident. He was living and working in California but unable to obtain citizenship. Shawn is Black and well aware of what it feels like to be in a world built around other people.
After the long pause, Shawn said, "I can't believe you would call me crying about this."
I was totally unprepared for this and asked him what he meant, to which he said, "You're in Bali, on a vacation. Do you know what would happen if I tried to leave and go on vacation? I would be deported. To be able to leave the US and know you can come back is a privilege. And do you know what else? I can't even take a vacation like that because I don't have that kind of money. I will never have an experience like that. Just to get here, and be in this country you were born into, took more than you'll ever know. You need to realize how lucky you are, stop crying, and appreciate where you are."
Shawn had never talked to me like that before. In fact, no one had ever talked to me like that before. Although it stung to hear, I knew what he was saying was true. I was embarrassed and humbled by everything he said.
All I could say was, "You're right. I'm sorry. You're so right."
I ended the call knowing something inside of me had changed. I no longer fought back tears at every moment. I stopped looking at what was challenging and started seeing the beauty of everything around me. And when I went to Thailand and found I was even more alone, and it was even harder, I didn't cry or call anyone complaining. Not because I was rejecting my feelings and forcing myself not to, but because something in me really had changed.
When I look back on that phone call, I can see now how it reflected the mindset of a white person raised in a dominant white culture (AKA a system of white supremacy).
I called Shawn thinking he would agree with me, as if my problems are universal and everyone in the world shares my perspective. I was completely centered in my own world view and unaware there were perspectives outside my own. I did not consider that what I had was something other people couldn't have. I did not consider that what I had was something obtained through not only my privilege, but the privilege accumulated from my ancestry. I did not consider that I was calling a Black man, who lives in a world built for white people, and that my two weeks of discomfort from feeling different were nothing in comparison to what he lives with every day. I did not consider that my problems weren't even problems, and that because I had never had to face real adversity, I was melting down over nothing. I was not in danger. I wasn't about to be homeless and starving. I was uncomfortable and I couldn't handle it.
Calling a person to tell them about my struggle while completely ignoring the much bigger struggle they are dealing with, that's assholery. That is a privileged mindset in a nutshell. It's also embarrassing, and it still embarrasses me.
Yes, I was struggling at that time. I was lonely and hurting. But as my friend pointed out, I was also having an incredible once in a lifetime experience. My ignorance blinded me to this other perspective. I could only see my own point of view, and in doing so, I asked someone to use their energy to make me feel better without considering what they themselves needed.
That phone call in Bali, that was not the last time I had to say I'm sorry. I was wrong. I'm listening. It was not the last time someone told me I was problematic. It was simply the first, and for that reason, it sticks out in my mind like a sharp tack.
Hearing feedback, learning, growing, and being uncomfortable, these are things I will go through for the rest of my life. Being told I was privileged didn't "cure" me. It wasn't the end of my learning. In fact, it was only the beginning. A lifetime of social conditioning does not unwind over night. It takes years. Years and years. And yes, that's work. But this is not the kind of work that's a drudgery. This is the kind of work that, for us white people (and many Non-Black People of Color), restores our humanity and eases the suffering of others. I can't imagine anything more worth our time or energy.
On a side note, I recently saw the friend who I had called that day in Bali. It's been about 12 years since that conversation and I wondered if he remembered. He said, "Of course I do. I couldn't believe you would do that." I still can't believe it either. But I am forever grateful he still wanted to be friends after that. He was a true friend, and I know this because a true friend will hold a mirror up to you and show you who you really are. They won't tell you what you want to hear to make you comfortable. They will tell you what you need to hear.
I didn't like what I saw in the mirror that day, and if that's where you are too, the solution is not to break the mirror. The solution is to change what's being reflected.