Confessions of a privileged minority

By Adolfo Aranjuez | 06 Feb 17
privilege social mobility liberalism

During my three-week-long trip to the Philippines over the festive period, I couldn’t avoid noticing my privilege rear its odious head. While there, I spent time in the gated community I grew up in, lazed around in our pool, was chauffeured around Manila’s luxe cosmopolitan precincts, and retreated to our holiday home in the mountains. Apart from the odd double-take and an intrusive question here and there from a less progressive relative, I had a rather sweet (and subsidised, thanks to my parents) time.

makati philippines

View of the Manila skyline, known as the Makati district, in the Philippines. Photo courtesy of Benson Kua, Flickr.

Upon my return to Australia, I parsed this observation further. Ask me to recount an instance in which I was subjected to overt discrimination based on my race, class, gender expression or sexual orientation and I wouldn’t be able to name one. My multiple-minority status (which I unpacked in an earlier Right Now column) should make me a prime target for some sort of identity-based attack – particularly racism or homophobia – yet thus far I have, fortunately, evaded such unpleasant situations.

To be clear, I have experienced microaggressions: people asking where I’m “really” from; people joking in bad taste about “OCD” or whingeing that they’re “so depressed”, without realising that I’m clinically diagnosed with both; and people “complimenting” me on my “surprisingly manly” dance moves. In the grand scheme of things, however, these pale in comparison to the hate speech, physical harm and socioeconomic disadvantage that other minorities consistently face.

I’ve come to accept that, in a Western context, this is my version of privilege; I’m no stranger to the qualification that I’m “one of the good ones”. I may be brown, but I’m apparently different from those Asians, who stick to their own and speak with thick accents. I may be queer, but I’m not a promiscuous “poof” whose life consists of clubbing, shopping and gossiping. I may have mental illnesses, but I’m high-functioning and you can “barely tell” that I have psych issues at all.

These characterisations are, of course, rooted in stereotypes – something not helped by the mainstream media’s deplorable track record when it comes to depicting minorities and achieving truly diverse participation – yet they’re pervasive yardsticks against which people who lie outside the majority are measured. In my case, most prejudiced sentiments are (luckily) phrased as negations, and that I’m continually afforded the special status of “model minority” is, I suspect, a result of my having so effectively internalised the way a mainstream white, heteronormative, neurotypical society expects me to behave. I immigrated to Australia at the age of fifteen and came out soon after, but these days my accent and comportment are so “Aussie” that most people assume I was born here.

Australia’s egalitarian mythos may peddle the idea that anyone can achieve success, but we can’t deny that knowing the “right” people and being part of the “favoured” groups offer significant advantages.

I don’t doubt that my being born into the Philippine upper middle class played a large part in enabling this: I’m simultaneously bilingual in English and Tagalog; I was fortunate enough to attend one of the country’s most prestigious private schools; and I was exposed to – and adopted – Western culture very early on. Together, these make up the perfect formula for a migrant to easily assimilate (that old chestnut) and, in time, seamlessly move through various circles within Australian society.

In his Metro essay on the ABC’s adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda, Dion Kagan points to the series’ use of the pool as an image that encapsulates the notion of social mobility. While protagonist Danny Kelly – a queer working-class Greek-Australian – does manage to carve out a place for himself among Melbourne’s upper crust, thanks largely to his athletic skill, Kagan stresses that race, class and sexuality are nevertheless inescapable aspects of the swimmer’s life. Australia’s egalitarian mythos may peddle the idea that anyone can achieve success, but we can’t deny that knowing the “right” people and being part of the “favoured” groups offer significant advantages.

barracuda danny kelly christos tsiolkas

Elias Anton as Danny Kelly in Barracuda.

I acknowledge my privilege in this respect: despite my ostensible limitations in ethnicity, mental health and sexuality, I have secured a stable job in an industry I love and live relatively comfortably. The more I establish my career and the stronger the networks I forge, the better equipped I become – again, notwithstanding multiple-minority status – to advance myself socioeconomically. In sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, I accumulate more cultural capital and further entrench myself in the hegemonic Australian habitus.

Ultimately, identity is performance: it is structured by our own and others’ conceptions, and is enacted in a constant feedback loop of response and reinforcement.

What this highlights, therefore, is the centrality of intersectionality: our identities exist within a matrix of societal power; privilege and disadvantage express themselves in differing ways depending on context and with whom we interact. Identity markers aren’t discrete nor uniformly expressed; much like genetic material, how they manifest depends on contextual factors. Ultimately, identity is performance: it is structured by our own and others’ conceptions, and is enacted in a constant feedback loop of response and reinforcement.

At the same time, all of this emphasises the significant investment necessary in performing the “right” identity. Especially for minorities, a lot of effort must be expended just to be seen to fit in and be taken seriously. The recent New York Times featurette “#thisis2016”, in which Asian-Americans cite encounters with race-based abuse, as well as this controversial Huffington Post op-ed entreating gay men to be more “masc” offer illuminating case studies.

Sure, I did arrive in Melbourne armed with a hefty amount of the “right” cultural capital, but I still had to wrestle with Australian slang, customs and politics. I got the hang of things in no time – but this isn’t so straightforward for others whose first language may not be English, or for those who may not have enjoyed such thorough exposure to Western society’s cornerstones such as liberalism and democracy.

Certainly, we should laud “model minorities” like Syrian refugee Saad Al-Kassab, who, after only learning English in 2014, graduated dux of his high school last year. But we must be careful not to employ broad brushstrokes when making sense of the lived realities of minorities. For instance, I, too, graduated dux of my high school, but my journey to that achievement – as an already Westernised, politically safe, English-speaking migrant – was infinitely less fraught than Al-Kassab’s. By the same token, that migrants like Al-Kassab and myself were able to attain such scholarly success doesn’t mean all migrants must aspire to the same expectations.

Notions of identity are mutable; my Asianness, my queerness, my masculinity, my mental health – all of these are particular expressions of who I am, underpinned by facets of identity that I share with others whose experiences align with mine. But that’s not to say that our experiences are identical: some minorities struggle with marginalisation on the daily, while a lucky few (like me) are privileged enough to have had things pretty good.

The key, then, is to confront oppression critically and develop a clear understanding of how social mobility functions. From there, we can work towards ensuring that as many people as possible are safeguarded from hate and disadvantage, and can move forward in society despite their difference.