It’s Sunday morning. I’m sitting in a Costa Coffee in the local mall, watching people pass by on their Sunday morning strolls. I’m drinking what was supposed to be a black coffee but what turned into a hot Americano thanks to a miscommunication with the baristas. I’m okay with it though – it has caffeine, and that’s what I needed.
I’m mostly over the jet lag by now, and I’ve become quite accustomed to using my bus pass. This morning, I rode into town next to a Welshman who lives in my building, and we chatted about our college and his life as a medical student. I’m afraid I’ve become the chatty American, but it is what it is.
Orientation and all that fun stuff starts tomorrow, and I will receive my Oxford ID card and officially become an Oxford student, able to cross into areas tourists can only dream of going. There’s something marked about that exclusivity, something I feel a deep sense of pride over. I can breeze past the lines of Australian and German tourists with their cameras and their brightly colored tour guides and flash an ID card to the porter and walk almost anywhere I want. I’ve spent the last week amongst the throngs of tourists, and tomorrow, I become separated, apart from them.
There’s something very appealing about being in this very special club, despite knowing that over 20,000 other people in this city have the same designation of “Oxford student.” There’s a hierarchy amongst those, as well, depending on which college you are part of and what you’re choosing to study. Even amongst the privileged, privilege and class remain acute.
In America, class privilege is recognized, but not given as much weight as many of the others. In the political dialogue, class privilege is important, but it intersects on a lot of levels with gender and racial privilege. The same is true of the UK, naturally, just as it is true in various other societies around the globe. But class privilege here has numerous, quickly identified social cues amongst peoples from voice to bearing to dress, whereas the cues for class privilege are slightly different in the States.
And yet, perhaps this is a part of my middle class privilege in the United States that I think that the markers of class privilege are less obvious in the US than they are in Oxford. Oxford is, after all, an upper-middle class city, with the attendant shops, brands, and money flowing with that. It is the school of Prime Ministers, and the hometown of numerous famous footballers and actors and actresses. It is a town that carries with it a defined and remarkable aesthetic – something patently missing in Sioux Falls, SD.
And I, as a white American student in this city, am aware of my separation from this system and structure of class as though standing behind a glass wall, watching life go by. The social cues of the culture aren’t as built into my experience of the world, and various referents go straight over my head. I’m at once privileged and denied access to that privilege because of my existence as a white immigrant. I am taken as “one of them” until I open my mouth and reveal with my long a’s and my flattened Midwesterner drawl that I am most definitely not. This is how my class privilege interacts with my racial privilege in this new society.
When I lived in Japan, there was no chance of me passing amongst the crowd as one of them. My Japanese was, admittedly, awful, but even if it was fluent, I still lived with the daily reminder that I looked nothing like the dominant society, nothing like the privileged racial class. Here, as in America, the default is still assumed to be white, so I can bank on that passage for the moments when I am silent.
In many ways, I am dependent upon my skin to ease my passing into this new world. My neighbor in my building is a from China, with English as a second language. His transition into this society is markedly different from mine as a white American, as he is consistently and constantly Othered, simply by virtue of looking different from the default. My passage is easy, until I choose to speak. Then I become that Loud American that an Australian friend of mine calls a “cartoon.”
This is the tension I struggle with – a heightened awareness of being an outsider, an Other, while my intersecting privileges mean that I am still look like the default. It is only with certain markers that I blend in – but I do not necessarily want to do so. I feel the need to defend America as my country, a weird surge of patriotism that arises whenever I travel, while simultaneously realizing that my Americanness is precisely that while denies me the privilege of passing through British society unseen.
And this is the question: do I want to pass? Or do I want to be Other? There’s no definitive answer, because humans and human constructed society is hard to navigate and understand. I don’t understand myself sometimes if it would be better for me to blend in or to stand out. And sometimes, that choice is made for me, just as it is for the numerous other people who have less privilege than I, who cannot pass so easily into new societies, who struggle each day with knowing that the moment they step out the front door, they are marked as Other.