In our health equity class, we did an exercise called the Privilege Walk under the instruction of our professor. Everyone stands in a line outside and as the professor makes statements, you either take a step forward or backward if it applies to you. By the end of the “game”, you can see where everyone stands based on what privileges they’ve had growing up – the most at the front and the least at the back. For example, one phrase might be “Take a step forward if you went to a private school” or “Take a step back if you’ve been discriminated against because of your gender.”
Going into the game, I thought I would be in the middle to front because I’m from the US – the most privileged country in the world – and am in pharmacy school. My life wasn’t horrible growing up – I was always popular, my parents always supported me, I was employed throughout high school, and had a car since I was fourteen. Most of my classmates were from Southeast Asia, you know, “those” countries. Yet out of a class of almost fifty students, I ended up third from the back by the end of the game. The questions were very personal and talked about discrimination, violence, finances, etc. and everyone answered honestly, including me. Yet there I was, standing literal yards away from my classmates. Why?
So we get inside and the professor asks questions like what did you learn, how did you feel, etc. and I was still dumbfounded. Judging by my standing, you’d think I had been beaten, lived on the streets, and harassed daily in my childhood. Finally, the professor asks, “For those of you in the back, how did that make you feel?” Like absolute crap, is that an option? I thought. I started the game standing side by side to the pharmacy students in Singapore whom I had grown to be friends with. As the game went on, they moved farther up and left me behind. At first it was funny, we would wave to each other like we were leaving forever. But then after a while, they got too far up to talk to anymore. I really thought we’d be similar based on how similar our interests and education levels were, but I guess not.
Knowing everyone is essentially staring at me and the couple of other girls who were nearby, I raised my hand. “I was in the back, not because I had some terrible childhood, but because I didn’t have any opportunities to step forward.” Throughout the game, I basically stood where we all started. I didn’t take many steps back but didn’t get to take any steps forward – the steps that made everyone move so far ahead of me. My parents didn’t go to college, I didn’t go to a private school, we don’t have second houses, all of the statements of privileged kids. But I also haven’t been assaulted, arrested, have single parents, all of the statements of “bad” kids. Then the professor asks, “Why do you think you weren’t given those opportunities to step forward?” That’s when I really started analyzing my life.
I grew up in a poor area – always had until I got to high school. Trailer trash? I was one of those people. My elementary school was so bad, we had extra inservice days compared to other schools in our own district. I went my whole childhood having only one white friend. I thought going to college, let alone pharmacy school, was a continuation of this rise in success for me and my family. Things never got in my way as a child. I was always on the honor roll, star of the musical, ahead in my class academically, voted most likely to be president in high school – I never got turned down from anything I set my mind to. So I guess when you’re on this lifetime high, you don’t stop to think that the wave you’re riding is still less than what everyone else has.
The week before this exercise, our professor gave us these life lessons from a first generation student to read. It was optional, which meant it was trash. But after this day, i fished it out and decided to actually read it. The girl who wrote it was a first generation Asian-American… ironic. She talked about how growing up, she was ashamed of being Asian and the examples she gave were so true to my life! Don’t get me wrong, I am not nor have ever been ashamed of being Vietnamese. But there are little things that she experienced that I remembered going through too, which at the time, I wished I wasn’t different. She wished that she was white like the other kids; i never wished that, I just sometimes thought it would be easier if I wasn’t so “weird” in general.
For example, I remember in the first grade my mom packed me lunch. She wrapped up a bowl of rice, chicken, and soy sauce. As a six year old, I struggled with the cling wrap around the dipping bowl housing my soy sauce so I just gave up. And eating plain rice is definitely not appetizing. The kids in my class made fun of my lunch, to the point I stopped trying to pick at my rice with my chopsticks and just packed everything up. I sat there watching the other kids eat while i was still hungry and about to cry. When I got home, my mom asked how come i didn’t eat my lunch. I just cried and yelled at her, saying I just wanted to eat chicken nuggets like the other kids and to stop packing my lunch. I didn’t tell her why the sudden change in menu, just that I wanted to eat school lunch. So she stopped packing my weird, Asian lunches.
As the years go by, people mature right? My new high school was full of stereotypical rich, white kids and being the one of three Asians, being different was cool. I was popular and people wanted to know more about my culture. Then one day a group of my guy friends started shouting “bing bong ching chong” as I walked down the stairs. That’s what Asian names all sound like and they thought it was funny putting it to my steps. They didn’t mean any harm and were my friends, but I was reminded of what it’s like to be different in the bad way again.
The point is that this exercise highlighted my difference and how it really has affected my windows of opportunity throughout my life. I know that I got and will get certain jobs because of my race – for better or worse. When people meet me, it will be one of the first things they notice. Think about it. When you meet a white person for the first time, you don’t think about his skin color but when you meet a black person, you do. Ask someone to describe a white versus Asian person. They use Asian as a descriptor but not white for a white person – it’s assumed. Is this racism? No. But it makes me wonder how equal i will ever be and how far forward my kids will get to step in that privilege walk.