Race and Privilege in Tunisia

Taylor Mulcahey | staff writer

The vendor remembered me, and had the pastry packaged before I could even ask. I handed him two thousand millimes, and I walked to class carrying my pain au chocolat, so close to the Mediterranean Sea, I could smell it. I had my routine, and I finally felt like I was getting used to living in Tunisia. But just as I turned the corner, a group of young men started catcalling me in broken English. “Welcome,” they said. But I’d been welcomed months ago.

Tunisia is a little country tucked between Algeria and Libya. It usually flies under the radar, but has recently gotten a lot of attention for its role in sparking the series of uprisings that spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa in 2011.

Sure, I have all kinds of things to say about my semester — that I really embraced the local culture, ate new foods, learned new languages, met great people and found myself. It’s been said before. What I didn’t realize was how much I would learn about being white.

I look nothing like a Tunisian; the majority of Tunisians are from Arab and Berber descent. Although there’s a great deal of diversity and di erent shades of color there, my bright blonde hair, green eyes and round, Irish face stood out.

In the United States, especially within the white, middle class areas where I’ve lived, I blend in. In Tunisia, some people stared or spoke to me in French or English, and plenty of men took this as their opportunity to catcall. It was o en exhausting. But it wasn’t until I left that I learned what it really means to t in.

After Tunisia, I spent a week in Germany, and quickly became familiar with “reverse culture shock.” Everything that seemed like it should have been familiar felt uncomfortable or foreign. And among other things, I was blinded by all the white people.

I blended in with the locals, so much so that people o en spoke to me in German, and a number of people asked me for directions. Granted, they only received blank stares in response, but nonetheless, I liked the change.

Fitting in is a privilege — we are a orded a number of things by simply looking like we belong. Perhaps most notably, we’re given privacy and independence. When you look like you t in, people don’t question what you’re up to. They just let you go about what they consider to be your own, private, daily business. When you look like a foreigner, all attention turns to you, and every action is questioned and scrutinized.

When I walked, I looked like just another German student heading to class, carrying out my daily, mundane tasks. I didn’t receive stares, or random calls of “Welcome to our country.” I didn’t receive anything. And after months of constant attention when I walked down the street, the silence felt like a blessing. I became less self-conscious and, in turn, felt more free.

I felt an almost palpable difference in my attitude as a result of how those around me were treating me, but I was ashamed. I was ashamed that I felt so free and was treated so di erently, all because of the way I look. The only difference in Germany was that I was surrounded by white, blonde people — I wasn’t any less foreign. In fact, I was probably more foreign, since I only spent a week there, and couldn’t communicate a single word in German. This system is entirely superficial, but the effects of it are not.

I realized that “fitting in” was an amazing privilege that I’d been afforded
my entire life, and my time abroad made me understand the awed system we follow. Even the fact that I’d never felt that type of alienation before attests to my privilege as a white American.

White privilege has no borders, and even in Tunisia, or almost anywhere abroad, being an American comes with it’s own set of privileges, as well. I can’t use my experience to understand the experiences of non-white Americans, and I don’t intend to. I do, however, want to share what I consider a blessing — the opportunity to learn about race and identity in a way that I never have before. I’ve often thought about race, and I’ve always been aware of it, but I had never been forced to feel it.

Lessons in race are hard, and as white people, we seldom have to ask ourselves what it means to be white. In reality, I have a lot to learn. I can read articles on race, identity and the way white Americans per- ceive foreigners, but it’s experiences like mine in Tunisia that force me to think deeply about race.

I miss Tunisia with all my heart. I miss the pain au chocolats, the stray cats and the coffee. I miss the Mediterranean Sea, the vibrant, civil society, and the some of the most amazing, hopeful, inspiring people I have ever met. I have so many things to be thankful for after my experience abroad, and learning about what it means to be white is one of them. ◆

Check out more from our April 2016 issue!