I Lost My White Privilege While Living Abroad—But I’m Not White

Mia Lupo photo by Maaike Bernstrom

As a Filipino-American, I have never had a problem with the color of my skin color in the United States.

Honestly, a lot of my (mostly white) friends “forget” I’m not white…

And so do I.

My “country of origin” is a bit of mystery to people because although I look Filipino, I also look half white.

I always joke that I look different enough from white people that I’m considered “exotic,” but at the same time, I’m not “aggressively ethnic” to be considered completely Other or foreign and make the Average White Person uncomfortable.

Common statements and questions I have received about my appearance typically play out like this:

An Interaction Between a Confused White Person and an Ambiguously Ethnic Person

Confused White Person: So what nationality are you?

Ambiguously Ethnic Person: American…?

CWP: (flustered because “American” sounds too normal of an answer and because they recognize I vaguely resemble the concept of Other/Not White, but not totally) No, I mean where are you from?

AEP: (immediately understands the real question CWP is alluding to but plays along with the game because CWP doesn’t know any better) Uh, depends on the day, but Rhode Island or Connecticut. New England.

CWP: (flustered feelings compound, compelled to know why AEP doesn’t fit into a known category of “race” like a box of colored Crayola crayons) No, I meant like you’re background, because you definitely don’t look Chinese or Japanese… You don’t have… You know, those eyes. Southeast Asian…?

AEP: (resigned, wandering if CWP realizes how ridiculous CWP sounds) Guess.

*CWP excitedly guesses a few countries around the actual Country of Origin, AEP feigns excitement at this guessing game and is just like OMFG I’m over this*

CWP: (mentally exhausted by CWP’s narrow silo of white privilege) Okay, I give up. Seriously, what are you?

AEP: (bites tongue with a smile, suppresses the urge to voice to CWP that AEP doesn’t appreciate being addressed like a human chameleon) Filipino.

CWP: (tries to cover up own confusion by sounding like CWP knew all along) Oh okay, that’s what I thought!

Mia Lupo photo by Donna Cheung
photo by Donna Cheung

I get the occasional naïve statement every once in a while, but nothing that has ever made me terribly uncomfortable.

For example, in my junior year of high school, I remember discussing spring break during an English class. The subject of tanning came up. While the girls were complaining about how they got easily sunburned, I was silently amused and trying to keep myself from smiling too much. Then the girls looked at me and politely commented on how I was lucky to have a “permanent tan.”

I thought I’d brag a little by telling the girls I could get even more tan during the summer, but I got a response that I wasn’t quite sure how to handle.

“But you’re better the color you are now!”

There’s nothing about this anecdote that makes me angry, it’s just laughably awkward. Side note: a part of me does wish I could have clapped back at them, highlighting their ignorance by asking if they thought I was a human chameleon.

The Whitest Girl You Know

 

Culturally, I identify as white. I grew up in New England between Rhode Island and Connecticut. I don’t come from old-moneyed Vanderbilts or nouveau riche from aggressive investments, but I’m not going to sugar coat the fact that I’ve had access to more opportunities than the average American. I am very grateful for this.

I rarely identified myself as a person of color unless it came to filling out standardized tests and college applications. On paper, there was nothing that separated me from my peers that cast me out as “Other” except my skin color and facial features (see “Human Chameleon” references above).

I’m perfectly content being a “Twinkie”—yellow on the outside, white on the inside.

In any case, I know what it means to a basic, privileged white girl. How you need to be prepared to have the right image on any occasion. Hunter boots in the rain, UGGs or any shearling-lined pair of boots during the winter, a versatile black blazer for professional or somber occasions. Cardigans. How you absolutely cannot wear open-toed sandals without a pedicure. How you need to maintain your highlights properly so your hair color doesn’t become brassy. How you need to have a natural, bronzed tan for formal events (oh wait…)

I’ve complained about how the organic supermarket didn’t have my favorite flavor of kombucha. I’ve name-dropped pretty places and European cities I’ve had the privilege to visit or live in. I’m guilty of judging conversations I’ve overheard at the local coffee shop, well-off housewives who cannot grasp the reality of their white privilege and warn their college-age children that there are areas of Boston that are “especially urban” (aka not white, therefore more likely to be dangerous).

Next level Privileged White Girl: I know how to serve backhanded, WASPy remarks. I know how to insinuate meaning with simple words loaded with heavy context without yelling vulgarities; how to employ a voice intonation that quietly simmers but never overflows; how to repeatedly throw sharp glares in his direction without throwing real daggers. I know how to do all of that while sitting up straight on the bar stool and calmly taking sips of the bartender’s champagne cocktails.

So, yes. I can comfortably navigate the basic codes of white privilege.

In America, skin color is not an indication of whether or not you’re American. If anything, People of Color who live in affluent, mostly white communities are less likely to be discriminated against and more likely welcomed into the culture, because it is assumed that these POC operate themselves within the parameters set by white privilege.

The Most Beautiful Walk in the World photo by Donna Cheung
Photo by Donna Cheung Photography

 

Becoming a Foreigner Abroad

 

 

While living in Paris, I have become very aware of my non-whiteness.

In a sea of pale, alabster complexions, my appearance, my skin color, my face stands out like a neon sign that screams Other. I lost my ability to toss around a playful smile and get away with little faux-pas. I lost the position to navigate the social situations to get what I wanted. Couple this my inability articulate myself in a non-native language, it’s a recipe for being identified as a foreigner.

In France, if you are not white, you are not French.

The cultural, xenophobic tension within France is rooted in the clash between the “real” French people and the immigrant population, predominantly from Middle-Eastern countries. There are French citizens who feel threatened that the identity of their country—inherently Catholic, white—will disappear.

My boyfriend is from the French countryside where there are people who share this sentiment to a certain extent. Whenever I run errands at the market in his hometown, it’s the “real” French people, les Arabes who are discouraged from engaging with “real” French people…and me. There are no other People of Color.

Asians aren’t as threatening to the death of French culture, but it is made clear that Asians are still not “real” French. No one has to come up to me and explain it—I experience it.

The difference between my experience in New England and France is that Americans in the Northeast are generally accustomed to diversity or, at the very least, know that the concept exists. My sheltered, privileged upbringing kept me from the reality that I could be treated unequally because of my skin color.

Back in the Paris suburbs, when I go my neighborhood supermarket, typically the only people of color are myself and the employees. Note: I do live in very white suburb immediately outside of Paris.

Sometimes when I go to cafés, the waitstaff looks at me and automatically addresses me in English.

There’s nothing that would really give away that I’m a foreigner based on what I’m wearing. I don’t wear sporty leggings and sneakers, even though that’s slowly becoming more of a fashion in Paris. I wear a neutral colored coat, jeans, white sneakers and carry a canvas tote like every other Parisienne. What could possibly give away that I couldn’t pass as a French person? Oh, wait…

Embracing Life in Color

Even though France may be a very homogenously white country, Paris is still an international city. There are ways to engage yourself as an Ambiguously Ethnic Person without feeling excluded from Parisian life.

It helps that I’m taking French classes at an international school, students who have come to Paris from all over the world to learn French.

I’ve also been fortunate to meet women of different nationalities who identify with their cultures.

 

 

I want to continue finding ways to become more comfortable with my identity as a Person of Color.

I am doing my best to build my life here—I don’t want to give up because my naturally sun-kissed skin doesn’t blend in with neutral, beige landscape of these classic Parisian buildings.

Mia Lupo photo by Maaike Bernstrom
photo by Maaike Bernstrom

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*Editor’s Note: The “Human Chameleon” concept was incorrectly labeled as “Human Iguana.” Chameleons are the reptiles that change color, not iguanas.

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Social Media Addict | Francophile | Fashionista

17 thoughts on “I Lost My White Privilege While Living Abroad—But I’m Not White

  1. Loved this. As a person with mixed heritage I related to a lot. I’m have black half white, and I’m not white passing but as a “pretty Lightskin” I do notice I get certain privileges in the US and abroad than most people. Like you said, exotic enough to be interesting but not threatening. Great read and important conversation!

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    1. Thank you for your input! I think there are so many people out there like us who don’t really know how to articulate this feeling. Hopefully we’ll see more stories about this topic for POC from all backgrounds!

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  2. Great post. I always got the feeling that Paris was less accepting of other cultures than most large European cities. We didn’t spend much time there so I don’t have too much experience to go off of

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to read it! I’m aware that my Paris experience is even whiter than average—I do live in a *very* white suburb and don’t socialize with as many POC as I probably should—but most Parisians do mean well, it’s just that their experience isn’t as culturally diverse

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  3. Loved this, thank you for sharing your experiences! I’ve always found it interesting that race is viewed so differently from country to country. I visited South Africa for a class on race in college, and comparing it to America was fascinating (and infuriating, of course). Just further proof that all this prejudice is completely socially constructed.
    Ugh and can I apologize on behalf of all Confused White People? 🤣

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    1. Haha thank you for your comment! I think the most important thing is for *everyone* to try and learn things that are not within our realms of normalcy. I’m happy that you gained a new perspective with this post!

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  4. Loved this post- sorry I’m just getting around to reading it! Thank you for sharing your experience- It’s huge that you’re bringing this topic to light and so important. I’m sure you are giving voice to plenty of POC who have come to Paris and somehow just felt out of place without a way to figure out why. You’re a badass.

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  5. Loved this post. As a person of color living in Spain, I have also felt how they treat me differently because of my looks. I’m happy that you are embracing your color and individuality. I agree that in the US we are more used to diversity and mixed ethnicity groups. Younger generations are more open-minded on these topics, I think is a matter of time.

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    1. Thank you for reading and leaving such a kind comment 🙂 I think the best thing we can do as POC abroad is to continue being ourselves in balance with a country’s culture. I hope you continue enjoying life under the Spanish sun, love it!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Loved this, thanks for sharing! It’s so interesting to see this from a perspective of somebody who isn’t white, I’ve travelled all over the world and am well aware of my ‘white privilege’ everywhere I go

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  7. Hahaha I can relate to this, being Latina/Mestiza. Even in Rome people ask where I’m from and when I say the United States, even here they ask, “No, really?!” I’ve been told I don’t “look American” by my sweet host mother in Japan too. Many people assume Americans are blonde and blue eyed all around the world.

    It depends where you live in the US too though. I lived in Wyoming for a while which is almost 100% white and the experience there is different. I’m going to Paris soon and hope everything goes well! Last time I was there with my whole family a drunk man told us to “go home” so I’m a little nervous! Many Spanish people and Latinoamericanos have Arabic or Moorish ancestry.

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    1. Hi Alicia, thank you for sharing your perspective!

      I totally agree with you. There are pros and cons all over the world—and within different regions of a country itself—in regards to dealing with any sort of diversity.

      I hope you have a more positive experience in Paris this time! Enjoy your time in the City of Light 🙂

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  8. As a person who is often misjudged while traveling since I look more south east asia than I look stereotypical south asian, I can so relate to your post. Lovely writing and so happy to have found this!

    Like

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