Privilege, or, when you look right, you can get things wrong

In 2012 I moved to Germany seeking a complete change of scene through immersion in a new language and culture. What it took me a while to grasp was that due to one aspect of my identity – my physical appearance – I was being treated differently from your average newly arrived immigrant.

Sure, it helped that my accent isn’t particularly strong and that I am good at filling the blanks in conversation from a previous career working with individuals with language disabilities. But the bottom line is that because I look right, I’m allowed to get things wrong. People here don’t typically pause to wonder if I might be a competent speaker of German. Instead, if they think about it at all, they may wonder why someone with such looks, I have German heritage on both sides of my family, doesn’t express herself more fluently and doesn’t always appear to understand what’s being said to her.

Something I had no part in, the genetic mixing that created my appearance, means I can pretty much take it for granted that people will speak German with me. Furthermore, I can usually expect patience and understanding if I stumble and stutter and the native speakers I encounter are mostly willing to persevere in conversing with me in spite of the challenges.

Why is this a story about diversity? Because diversity encompasses privilege and this is a story about privilege. My fitting the mold physically means that on sight and without any action on my part, my status is assumed to be that of “German speaker.” This presumption means that I don’t have to battle to be recognized as having the ability, or the right, to speak. Indeed, it requires very little from me to maintain this first impression of competence.

Because I didn’t anticipate enjoying a privileged status, I have had to learn not to take it personally when I am treated differently from other non-native speakers with the same or greater command of German, as this frequently says more about the beliefs of my conversational partners than it does about me. Thus, although I can feel proud of managing an entire interaction without using English, I must always be aware that the opportunity to do so may in large part be due to the positive bias my looks engender in those with whom I come into contact.

This heightened awareness of my privilege, and its connection to an aspect of my identity outside of my control (i.e., something unearned), has triggered reflection upon and discomfort with how qualities such as skin, hair or eye color, gender or clothing style can be crucial to how we judge worthiness. When possession of certain attributes makes it a certainty that we get a place at the starting line and exhibiting others means we never get to compete at all, we all lose. Some highly adept individuals get overlooked and can never contribute. Meanwhile, those who are selected miss the chance to test their abilities to the utmost on a level playing field. To change our approach to one where we go beyond surface characteristics such as someone “looking the part” and base decisions upon genuine appraisals of competence based on talents allows us to reap the diversity dividend.

Creative Commons License
The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Privilege, or, when you look right, you can get things wrong