The Experience of Being Different


If you are a white person living in suburban, rural, or sometimes even urban America (or other European nations, like Britain or Germany), it’s probably nothing you’ve ever thought about. Perhaps even when going on vacations to touristy areas of other nations, you haven’t noticed it or thought anything about it. When you are part of the majority, you walk along without a thought as to what it’s like to be in the minority, to not look like everyone else. To be different.

But millions of people walk around every day feeling different, having people look at them when they get on the bus, watching people clutch their bags closer when they get on the elevator, seeing little kids staring at them and sometimes even pointing, and receiving discrimination due to their difference.

I’m not much different. I am white and most of the time at work or in my neighborhood or in my town I am around other white people. But, being bilingual and being married to a Mexican has helped put me in environments where I am the minority. And I think it’s a very good thing for any white person to experience.

The first time I ever had the experience of being different was in high school. Our youth group went to a black Baptist church in our area of New Jersey for a visit. It was a wonderful service, full of high energy and great music, but it was way out of my comfort zone. Apart from one or two other people, we were the only white people in the whole church. I felt like I stood out. I felt like people were watching me. I felt like I was different. The songs were different, the style of sermon was different, people were dressed different. I was for the first time in my life getting a taste for what it feels like to be a minority in a white world. And, it was really darn uncomfortable.

The church my husband and I attend has a Spanish service (Alianza), which we go to every Sunday and to all the little fun events, etc. There are lots of my gente (people) there at the service in the praise band and in the congregation (many times they are college students), but sometimes I’ll get to an event, like a baby shower or a party or a Bible study and suddenly I’ll look around. Even though I know every single face in the group, I am suddenly keenly aware that I am the only white person in the room. Now, I love all my brothers and sisters in the church and they love me, so I don’t know why it feels weird. But it does. And I treasure it. That’s how they feel all the time. When they go to the English service or when they go to work or to the supermarket. Even though I don’t like it, I cherish having this experience to be able to understand where they are coming from.

Every week at my job I run a Spanish-speaking therapy group, where when we go around to introduce ourselves and people often say what country they are from, I jokingly say, “Soy Allison, y soy de New Jersey.” They all laugh, and we continue on. Sometimes when they are all from Puerto Rico, they carry on and talk so fast it is hard for me to catch up and they use little expressions that I don’t understand. Then one of them will stop and say, “She doesn’t know what that means. When we say…” But, how many English speakers are nice enough to do that for a ESL person in the group. It usually doesn’t happen. It’s a good experience to be on the other side of the fence once in a while.

Now the reason I’m thinking about this today is that I’ve been in Guadalajara, Mexico with my hubby visiting his family for almost two weeks now. So far I have only seen about 10 of my people (mostly in the Center). I go days without seeing a white person. I walk hand in hand with my hubby down the street and get looks from people. I’ve had countless people on the bus do double-takes when they see me and three looking back at me regularly for an entire bus ride. On other trips, I’ve had little kids staring at me and pointing, and one time an old lady stared me down in a very not nice way. I’ve had some people give me dirty looks, others ask me where I’m from, but most are nice. Here I stick out. I am different. Especially when I ride the bus or walk around in the non-touristy areas. I find myself looking for “my people”, though I’m not sure why. When I find them, I feel a sort of solidarity.

It’s not that I don’t love Mexico and Mexicans (I especially love one in particular, teehee). It’s just that it is weird to feel so different. Yet I am constantly reminded on my trips here that this is probably how my husband feels all the time when we’re in Virginia, living what feels to me to be an everyday existence, here is there feeling different. That’s hard. It’s hard to go every day feeling different.

That’s why I love having the experience of being different. It’s hard. It’s uncomfortable. It’s strange. But it’s leads to better understanding. Though still being in the white majority, I know it isn’t the same because I don’t experience the prejudice and racism here or at church or at work that minority members experience, but at least it’s a good start to understanding better a little bit about what they go through every day.

Have you had experiences like this? If you haven’t, I highly recommend it. 🙂

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