When I was in undergrad, I belonged to a fraternity. One of their favorite pasttimes was drinking games. (Dear Gawd, I miss the days when drinking was a game, instead of a coping strategy.) One of their favorite games was called Asshole. It’s a game based on a hierarchy. It starts at the president, and goes all the way down to the asshole. One part of the game is called Shit Rolls Down the Hill. During this part, the president starts drinking, and as long as he drinks, so does everyone else. When he stops, the vice president can stop, and it goes on from there all the way down to the asshole, who is probably hopelessly drunk after the first drink.
This game got me thinking about status, and levels of status. When I was in my 20s, I worked at a summer theatre in upstate New York that had a very rigid status system. They put the actors into two groups: Principals and actor-techs. The principals were always the lead roles in the shows, and their only job was rehearsing and performing. The actor-techs on the hand, had smaller parts in the shows, but they were also tasked with doing the grunt work, like cleaning, that helped the theatre run.
For the shows, we used body mics. For those who don’t know, these are wireless microphones that you wear in a pouch on your waist, and the actual microphone is taped to your cheek. We used a kind of double-sided tape that had little backing strips that you had to remove. When the actor-techs used the mic tape, they would throw the backing in the trash. The floor in the principals’ dressing room, however, was always covered in these strips, because they knew that the actor-techs would clean it up. That showed me that whenever you introduce status, you also introduce privilege.
When I worked on cruise ships, that was a whole world built on status. Passengers always came first. ALWAYS. Then there were officers, followed by petty officers, and crew. Every aspect of your life was different, depending on your status: Where you ate your meals, where you could go in your leisure time, the number of hours you worked. EVERYTHING.
As a black American in this environment, of course, I had to look at it in a deeper way. On our ships, your nationality determined where you worked. The folks from English speaking countries were usually in the entertainment department or the spa. The deckies and engineers were either British or Dutch. The menial tasks were left for people from Indonesia or the Philippines.
As a member of the entertainment department, I had officer status. That meant I could eat in the Lido, where the passengers also ate, go to the shows, the nightclub, and all the passenger bars. I was also able to go to the Officers Bar, affectionately called the OB. This was my first taste of privilege. Why privilege? Because other than the Crew Bar, Crew Mess, Petty Officers Mess, and Petty Officers Bar, I have no idea what was available for anyone of lower status. I knew what they couldn’t do. I knew they couldn’t eat in the Lido. I knew they couldn’t go to the shows. I knew they couldn’t go to the nightclub or the bars.
But I could go to their bars. I could go to their mess. After a night out up in passenger areas, we could go to the crew mess and get some Indonesian food and sing karaoke, with no problem. We could go to their spaces, but they couldn’t go to ours. Because I am a black American, this arrangement felt way too familiar. The Indonesian and Filipino crew members had it worse than us on every level: Their contracts were longer, their workdays were longer, and on embarkation/debarkation day, they didn’t even get to sleep. Because I am a black American, this DEFINITELY felt way too familiar.
As uncomfortable as I felt about the situation, I reveled in my newfound privilege. This was my first time being at the top (or at least near it), and I was living my best life. Every night was a party. We’d start off at one of the bars in the guest area (if we hadn’t had a sneaky drink in the OB before). From there, we’d go to the show. After that was over, it was time to hit the nightclub until curfew. After curfew, we’d finish the night off in the OB. Port days were even better. We could go on the guest excursions for free. If we didn’t do that, a bunch of us would find a local beach resort and waste away for a few hours. Then, when we were back on the ship, it was nap time before our evening activities. For us, the party never stopped.
The interesting thing about privilege is that when it’s working in your favor, it’s very easy to ignore it and write it off as simply the way things are. That’s exactly what I did. However, I did notice the ways that crew members would vent their resentment. Depending on your status, crew members could order room service. With the ship phone system, the folks in the kitchen can tell if a call is coming from a passenger or a crew cabin. A lot of the time, if they didn’t feel like being bothered by crew orders, they would just let the phone ring. Also, if you got on the wrong side of the Filipino mafia, things would disappear from your laundry, or you would suddenly have a much harder time getting served in the bars. Some things were a lot more overt. For instance, there was one point when we were in South America, and the ship was in code red. For those who aren’t ship folks, that means that the ship had reported a certain number of cases of NLV virus, and certain safety protocols were in effect. Part of those protocols included the fact that there was a ban on all parties. However, on this particular ship, they made an exception, and we were allowed to have a party in the OB. There were flyers for it all over the crew areas. As I got into the crew elevator one day, I saw that someone had written “It must be nice to be white” on one of the party flyers. I totally understood the anger behind that act, but I still went to the party.
All of this doesn’t mean that I didn’t have to deal with racism. I mean, our main demographic was older white folks who like Fox News, so of course there was racism, but it was the benign variety. It was being mistaken for the black member of the show cast who looks nothing like you and weighs about 50lbs less than you or being in the Caribbean and guests complimenting your English and asking what island you’re from. This was very different from the racism I returned to when I left the cruise ship microcosm. Back in New York, I was once again confronted with good old-fashioned American racism. I was constantly the suspect. In stores, the staff would follow me around. One shop owner in Washington Heights followed me so closely, she could have been my shadow. I had to deal with the nervous feeling whenever I saw a cop, because I didn’t know their intentions. I had to confront the presumption of guilt that follows black people in America. I also had to face the constant stream of microaggressions from the white gays that I would encounter in the gay bars. Privilege is a fickle mistress. Depending on location and circumstance, she can leave you in the blink of an eye.
When I first got to Germany, I felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. That burden of constant suspicion was gone. I didn’t feel like I “fit the description”, and it was amazing. That whole first year, I did notice some little things, but because they weren’t directed at me, they didn’t really bother me. At last, I was no longer public enemy number 1, and I was on vacation. Here, Asian people or people from Middle Eastern countries are more likely to have racist encounters than I am. I also found that a lot of people will differentiate between Africans and black Americans. It was a curious experience, but because it worked in my favor, I went with it.
One thing that woke me from my blissful German dream was an encounter I had with a fellow American expat. He was a black Trump supporter (sadly, they do exist) who had moved to Germany after marrying a German woman. Ironically, this immigrant was very anti-immigrant. He talked a lot about “those people” and how dangerous they are. In this case, “those people” meant Muslims, but I kept hearing echoes of how certain American politicians talk about black people, and I couldn’t keep silent. We argued. A LOT. That’s when I saw the ugly side of privilege. Now that he was in a place where he wasn’t the lowest person on the ladder, he decided to take advantage of the situation and kick down. That’s also when I realized that I had to be a loud voice for those who have less privilege than I do, if for no other reason than to counter the voices of people like him.
Let’s be real. Privilege is a part of life. We live in a world of status, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. Historically, cis-het white males have been at the top of that pyramid, but every group has its white man. For example, cis-het black men are the white men of the black community. White cis gay men are the white men of the gay community. The list goes on and on. But my question to you is this: In the moments and places when you find yourself in that position of privilege, are you going to use it to kick up or to kick down? I know what I choose.
During my time on ships, I failed the people with less privilege. I didn’t speak out when I should have. During my first year in Germany, I failed the people with less privilege. But I am done failing them. I have a voice, and I am determined to use it to help others. What about you?