Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Let's Talk About Ellis Island Privilege

The problem with privilege is that you don’t realize you have it. This makes it difficult to point it out. If you’re an Eloi, then you are likely completely oblivious of the Morlocks who have made your life so easy, who are not on the same level as you. It took years for me to recognize that I have male privilege. And acknowledging that you HAVE privilege is not the same thing as taking responsibility for how your privilege came about, nor is it an attempt to make you feel guilty for being who you are. No one expects you to bear the burdens of other people’s past crimes. That knee-jerk defensiveness just shows how fragile and precious social statuses are. With all that said, we need to discuss something.
Some white people need to deal with their Ellis Island privilege.
One of my FAVORITE things to hear, besides white dudes telling me what Martin Luther King would have done, is when white people say something to the effect of, “My grandparents came here in the 1940’s! They were poor! We CAN’T have privilege!” OK, I get it. You come from a group of people whose ancestors were NOT architects/beneficiaries of the 398-year old construct of American racism that still affects people of color today. Your parents got some shit for having bad accents. They were poor. They had to work hard to get what they could so that you can read and live in denial now. You forget, though, that once those accents melt away, they could easily assimilate into society without the burden of a color adjective, no matter what their economic level is. So you may not have been a part of the system created in the United States, you just moved into it. However, the fact that you COULD move into was your family’s first exercise of American white privilege.
Throughout history, many groups immigrated to the US. The Irish, the Germans, and the Italians all came to the US in droves and caught shit for being here. There was a lot of anti-Catholic sentiment in the discrimination of Italians and Irish. However, no law was passed to legally bar them from coming. If we want to REALLY get technical, the fact that they could VOLUNTARILY migrate while African people were involuntarily migrated would be the first instance of migration privilege. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was one of the first pieces of federal legislation that targeted a specific group of people. It’s funny, because was enacted AFTER the US used Chinese immigrants for super-cheap labor to build railroads that they decided to bar them, and 11 years AFTER LA Chinatown was subject to a race riot because white residents felt threatened by the Chinese residents’ prosperity.
Except for the hundreds of Jewish refugees on the MS St. Louis that was turned away for fear that they were Nazi spies; white immigrants have enjoyed a pretty easy flow into the US compared to other immigrants, even despite the quotas and language laws. While some were arriving to Ellis Island right after WWII, Japanese descendants were being JUST let out of American concentration camps, as their internment was deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court. There were ALWAYS “mysterious” limits to how many people from “brown” countries could immigrate. The government will cite security concerns or something, which in some cases may be true. But how threatening is a Haitian or Jamaican immigrant who wants to reunite with their siblings as opposed to a Russian who may have married a US defense contractor within 6 months of meeting him? That is Ellis Island privilege.
I witnessed it firsthand. In my globetrotting years, when I married my Ukrainian wife and applied for a visa for her before we headed back to the US, I was told that it would be at LEAST a year before she could set foot on American soil. I was told this by an acquaintance that had waited 18 months for his Jamaican wife’s visa paperwork to process. My wife got her visa in less than 6 months. She got her green card in less than 3. My friend was still waiting while my marriage started to fall apart. Ellis Island privilege.

So if you are still claiming that you CAN’T have privilege because you’re only first or second generation, please stop. We’re laughing at you, but no one is attacking you. You have privilege. You’re still the same person, just a little bit more knowledgeable.

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