Being a black, “lightskin“, able bodied, educated, straight, cis-woman holding a German passport, who aspires to be a writer, struggles with mental health at times, studies in London and regularly travels different parts of the world, there are little things that confuse me more than trying to grasp the concept of privilege. This is because privilege is fluid. It comes and goes depending on the space I move in. Most people never leave their comfort zone and so they never realise their privileges.
My journey of grasping privilege started off in a Bavarian primary school full of immigrants’ children frowned upon by society and “destined” to leave education early. I was always top of my class, probably because I am smart, definitely because I spoke German perfectly. My German social-worker Mum had dragged me to virtually all museums in the country, paid for me to play instruments and sing in choirs and would only let me watch kid’s documentaries on days where I did not go hiking or playing at the park. This privilege over immigrant children, whose parents were trying to pay bills and worked all day (like my father) and usually did not speak German well, got me into a Grammar school that specialized in music and art whereas most of my class mates’ grades were not good enough and only allowed them to go to schools with much lower educational levels. For the few who made it, music and art were not an option as both are sadly considered to be luxurious privileges that cannot be entertained by most working class and immigrant people.
My parents have always supported my art and so at the age of 10, I suddenly found myself around a bunch of white wealthy kids who held privileges I had not even known existed before. The only thing we shared was our education and I was hyper aware of that throughout my teenage years, feeling oftentimes underprivileged due to my lack of wealth and whiteness. Nonetheless, after a year I had successfully assimilated and forgotten about the kids from my primary school. It seemed that because of our difference in education, we had even less in common than me and the white kids.
My 17th birthday
My 18th birthday
Then I graduated, and I graduated well because I wanted to achieve the grades required to get into a London university. Of course, my family did not have the money to send me there, but my Dad raised me believing that anything is possible and that I had to at least try. First though, I wanted to travel (he had also been telling me my whole life that when I turned 18, I should leave Germany and explore the world). I booked an all-around-the-world-ticket to 10 countries. When I visited my family in Sudan, I realized that I could have been born the same girl in Sudan instead of Bavaria, and my life would have been fundamentally different. Most Sudanese people can hardly go anywhere as they do not get visas easily. Girls do not even get Human Rights most of the time and growing up there, I might have been subjected to FGM.
Photos by Hannah Wolny, taken in Portsudan
When I visited my Sudanese cousins in Canada, their lives did not compare to mine in any way. My aunt might be an immigrant just like my father, yet the fact that she is a woman makes her life a lot harder than his. Unlike him, she had married at a very young age instead of going to university. She moved continents with three children and a (mildly put) unhelpful husband. For the reason that she was facing struggles inside the house as well as outside, she could not provide for her sons the same way my Dad did for me. As a foreigner, he had to find any work while facing racism. My aunt dealt with sexism on top of that. The intersections of her race, gender, nationality and class resulted in my cousins never receiving the opportunities I did.
My Sudanese-Canadian cousins were continuously praising me for my lighter skin, calling me “master race” because I am mixed. They told me I had a bright future because everyone wanted me and wanted to look like me. Having grown up in Germany, I had never encountered colourism and this so-called “lightskin privilege” made absolutely no sense to me until I moved to London (what a privilege to be European and have the British government pay my tuition, what a privilege to be German and have the German government pay for most of my living expenses). There, I understood the many advantages lightskin women hold over darkskin women, in private, public and even creative spaces. I saw the biased way people treat me due to my closer proximity to whiteness and the way they disrespect my friends because their darker skin is associated with a lack of femininity (and humanity). As a creative, I get opportunities to access the wider public more easily as my looks make me the preferred option for representing the black community. Oftentimes I may not at all be the best option, but my “light skin” makes me more relatable than a dark skin woman. At the same time I am often reminded that I apparently am a “dark lightie” who does not even look mixed anymore when she stays in the sun too long. Therefore, my position as a mixed woman changes depending on who I surround myself with; it is made an advantage or a reason for shame by the society I interact with (and also depends on the weather).
Living in Egypt for a year made it especially difficult to locate myself. As a woman, as an African(looking) woman (something strange and often shameful in the un-African land of Egypt), I am subjected to patronization and sexual harassment. As a German whose bank account is full of Euros, I can do pretty much whatever I want. I can be a student living in an incredibly expensive flat with a cleaner, who goes to restaurants every day and spends hundreds of Egyptian pounds on dancing lessons. At the same time I can be spat at for wearing a t-shirt and be scared for my safety, because people cannot see that I hold many “white” privileges. Then again, I’m not black black, I am black but I am still light(er) and I dress like an American, not like a refugee, so I still face less discrimination than someone who had actually migrated from Sudan.
Photo by Trina Cray
In Europe, we as black women focus so much on our identity as oppressed women of colour, but when I moved to Egypt I saw other Sudanese women, immigrants like me (supposedly) who could hardly recognize me as a fellow black woman. Such is the hierarchy of privilege. And really, what are my issues in relation to theirs? How do I compare being fetishised with being spat at? How do I compare my hair being touched without my consent to it being grabbed and pulled in attempt to rip off my wig?
I constantly re-evaluate my situation. Sometimes that means putting my own needs second to those of others. There is a hierarchy in oppression that we can only grasp through long and open conversations. While having these, it is important not to use our own experiences of being under-privileged in a certain context to negate the experiences of other under-privileged people. Coming back to Europe and following the debate about refugees, I see that people who have not left their comfort zone oftentimes take the world for granted the way it is and fail to understand that their issues do not even begin to compare to those of someone who has fled their country.
If my stories resonated with you, I hope you will sit and think about your own positionalities and how/when they shift. If you could not resonate at all, that’s also great, start checking your privileges and if you cannot come up with anything, try asking someone around you.
Words by Amuna Wagner