Sunday, November 20, 2011

White Privilege and a Haircut: Seventy-five Cents

I got a haircut today, and if you've been reading my blog for awhile you know that getting a haircut always makes me wax eloquent about my life in China.  (See here and here.)

Chinese haircuts are long and give you ample time to think.  From start to finish, I don't think I've ever been in the salon less then two hours.  Today I arrived with two sweet students who had volunteered to help me translate.  One of them also wanted to get her bangs cut, but the stylist told her she couldn't because they were already short enough.  One small detail to show how considerate my students were: They had bought an English-language newspaper for me in case I got bored during my haircut.

Most of the stylists were boys (as usual in China) and looked about 17 years old.  They were skinny guys rocking skinny jeans and huge hair -- picture a lollipop effect.  Most of them had hair that was either permed or fanned out in some way and dyed brown, orangish brown, or (in one case) purple.  The guy who worked on my hair looked a little older and seemed to be the one in charge.

It didn't surprise me that the boss was the one who cut my hair.  In fact, I expected it.  I am always given the boss.

I go for a haircut and the best stylist does my hair.
I walk down the street and make someone's day just by saying "hello" to them.
I sit at the dinner table and my students gush over how beautiful I am.
I always get a seat on the Rizhao-Qufu shuttle, even when others are sitting in the aisles.
I am treated to an expensive banquet three times a year, along with the other foreign teachers and the university president.
I am occasionally offered English teaching or tutoring jobs by strangers.

I am white, and because of my race I often get offered the first thing, the best thing, the unexpected praise, or the benefits not available to locals.

China has a strange fascination with foreigners, especially foreigners from developed countries.  Because the stereotypical view of Western people is that they are white, we white folk get considerably more foreigner-worship than (for example) a Chinese American in China.  This explains why perfectly unqualified white Americans can show up in any Chinese city and quickly find an English teaching job, sometimes getting a higher salary than their more-qualified Chinese counterparts.  It also explains why many Chinese are eager to flaunt their foreign friends -- it gives them face to be associated with us.

For an extreme example, read this recent ad from, which offers 1000 RMB ($150) for someone to sit in a meeting and be white.

Living in China has made me far more aware of my race, because people take one look at me and treat me differently.  Giving someone extra favors just because they are white is racism - there's no other word for is.

The scary thing is, when you live in this reality, the race distinction becomes expected.  I expected to get the best hairstylist -- why wouldn't I?  I'm clearly the only foreigner in the room.  In the same way, some of the extra privileges given for my race have ceased to be a surprise and have become not only routine, but expected.  (Expected, not demanded.  I am using the word in the sense of "knew it would happen," not "wanted it to happen.")

And here I come to my point.  Being part of a privileged class soon feels normal, to the point where you almost cease to notice the race distinction whether or not you agree with it.  Let me state for the record, I don't.

But if I were part of an underprivileged class, I wonder if it would ever feel normal or if I would ever cease to notice it.  What if I walked into a salon and they took one look at me and made me wait for an hour for a haircut with the worst stylist?  What if I got on the shuttle and they took one look at me and made me squat in the aisle?  What if I arrived for a job interview and was told that my race was going to take a few thousand dollars off my salary?

I wonder if one of the factors that has allowed white privilege to flourish for so long in so many places is that even when the white people themselves don't necessarily believe they are superior, the status quo feels normal and comfortable.  If the status quo was reversed, we'd feel uncomfortable pretty fast, and maybe we'd work harder for a more egalitarian world.

Just some thoughts as I got my hair cut this afternoon.


  1. Good perspective, Alison. I'm headed to church and there's a pretty good chance I will be ushered to the front row. . .

  2. I also disagree w/race-based treatment, but maybe that's not such a bad thing to be treated well by strangers. Here in the states, it seems like people are making more of an effort to be welcoming to foreigners. The more it goes both ways, the better. What really bothers me is when I see westerners exploiting others via our powerful world position. Next time you're in Bangkok, spend a few minutes in the expat districts, and you will be disgusted by what you see....

  3. Mallary -- Yes, that's exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about.

    Bryan -- I don't think it's bad to be treated well by strangers either. What got me thinking was how quickly race-based treatment has started to feel normal, and how maybe that's an explaining factor for how racist laws and societies are maintained.