Seeing Ourselves Through Others’ Eyes: Isabelle Winkler 2

 

We continue our series, Seeing Ourselves Through Others’ Eyes with our guest  Isabelle Winkler whom I  met  on the Women Writers Women’s Books FB group a few months ago, when this series was taking shape. She and I have  carried on a most enjoyable email correspondence since and I’m  pleased she’s agreed to participate in our series.

You might recall from the  original post last May, Isabelle is currently wending her way around the world.  She hopes to do it without getting on an airplane and I for one couldn’t find that more appealing.  Currently living in Russia for the summer, Isabelle is planning to venture into Georgia, then Armenia and Iran.  She is the voice behind the travel blog Around the World in which she chronicles her journey through words and pictures.

Isabelle hails from Germany originally, and has actually never (yet) set foot on US soil.  But her story of meeting an American at a film festival in Finland raises a topic that is of particular relevance to me these past few years — that of unexamined and unrecognized privilege, and the dynamics that that privilege produces.

I’m very pleased to bring you Isabelle Winkler.

 

Isabelle WInkler

COLLIDING WORLDS

As a white German woman, I never recognised my privilege. I only saw what people had refused to give me.

In some way, and since I am travelling, I understood I am the most privileged person. While travelling, I carry more privilege than male travellers do because I tick all the right boxes: educated, well travelled, young, female, white, Western, heterosexual, quiet, German (let’s not forget, the most potent passport to own at the moment).

I am invited into the lives and houses of people, allowed near their children, taught and trusted. I am non-threatening. Regardless of who I am as a person, this initial judgment would be different, if I came from another country, had another colour of skin, was another gender, etc.

I realised this, only because I witnessed someone else not understanding the effect of the privilege they carried. It so happened that this person was an American. It also dawned on me, that it’s different for Americans, maybe generally English speakers? That their privilege is sometimes more apparent, more visible, and, I assume thus something Americans experience in higher numbers than other nationalities. So, here is my story.

 

The famous arctic blue (the moment after the sun has sunken beneath the horizon and the last light lingers, everything appears to be blue). Photo credit: Isabelle Winkler.

 

About four months ago I attended a film-workshop-festival at the Arctic Circle in Finland. It was during Winter, where daylight is scarce and snow, ice and wind rule sublime. With 20 to 30 participants this group full of creative souls from all over the world brought together a range of dynamics. There were people from Germany, America, Romania, Finland, Poland and France.

Festivals like this are always a wild ride. This time, however, as people were pitching their film ideas, trying to convince others to come on board, two major projects started to take centre stage.

One conceived and directed by an American, a Rockstar like figure with a loud laugh and a vibrant personality. He pitched a concept that was three interconnected films. He would need three different crews, translating into three times more people than everybody else. It’s against the rules, but aren’t they mere guidelines anyhow? People think that they can interpret them. (Not unique to American culture at all, more something where my Germanness becomes embarrassingly visible.)

In Finland, however, nobody stepped in. Finns, I was told, were averse to conflict.

Unrelated to this project a bunch of other short films found their crew and everything seemed fine. There was just one project that didn’t get off the ground. The Romanian was a passionately creative man, introverted to a degree and hard at work trying to convince as many people as possible to make a crazy artistic film with him.

Nobody was up for it.

He was intense, not sure where to go creatively and needed people to bounce off on, to create something he deemed worthy. My experience is that these projects often amount to little, but sometimes they work, and something wonderful comes out as a result.

While everybody was busy scheduling whatever part they had agreed to play in the big American project, there were a couple of kind young actresses who tried to accommodate both guys. This negotiation cumulated in a shouting match between the American and the Romanian. They almost physically fought over a couple of girls. It was ridiculous and kind of scary.

The Finns that organised the festival had a hard time sorting this out and to an extent failed. They didn’t have other arguments then: “Let him be” and “To each his own.” Something that Scandinavians live by, and that works for them. It didn’t work for the American or the Romanian, and they continued to circle each other like wounded animals, ready to bite at the slightest provocation.

After everybody had cooled down a bit, not long after that initial brawl, flames rose up again, and the argument between them got more abstract and cultural. The Romanian started to tell the American that his demeanour was “typical” for his warmongering nation and that he was an egoist and a horrible person.

To the American’s credit he didn’t retaliate in kind, but it was evident that he had no clue what the other was on about. He was half laughing about the accusations, thus ridiculing the assailant even more.

I am not going to go into details about the Romanian’s attack because what he said didn’t help his argument. He tried to verbalize the injustice he was facing while feeling ignored, degraded and belittled. If you have ever tried to argue out of a position of weakness, you know that there is a reason we hire lawyers for this. His accusations were filled with unreflected racism and prejudice.

The Romanian was hurt, had been rejected too many times and artistically degraded. It’s an exhausting and vulnerable place to be in, especially in a foreign country where one’s nationality is spoken about in stereotypes of car thieves and organized crime. I cannot start to imagine what was going on in his mind.

The American, however, wasn’t aware of the privilege he carried. It didn’t occur to him that his actions were reproachable. To him, the people had decided. They were acting on free will, after all. He was not to blame.

 

A random kebab. Photo credit: Isabelle Winkler

 

Being an American abroad can’t be hidden, it’s in the voice, the accent, the way he carries himself, the clothes, the vocabulary, the laugh. Foreigners will associate all of those things with what they have seen in movies. In a room full of aspiring filmmakers and film collaborators this is even more powerful.

Young women become flies buzzing around a light. Boys and men will take that person just a little bit more seriously than the counterpart that speaks good, but broken English.

Everybody wants to please the person taking up so much space, the one with the grand ideas, talking about film festivals and successful people. They want to get to know the one that seems to be in the know.

How does one react when the privilege one had previously been unaware of carrying, turns into the opposite? How do you navigate coming from the arguably most powerful country in the world, when you are unable to walk down a street abroad without being recognised as tourist or American or both?

[The author is aware that not all Americans are alike, nor are all Finns, all Romanians or all of any other nationality. Talking about Americans, Finns, and Romanians is an attempt to speak about  what I believe must be a common conflict. One that  (since staying in Russia) I face regularly. I haven’t come to any conclusions on, yet.]

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You can follow Isabelle on Instagram or visit her English language website.  

 

Thank you Isabelle.  The topic of privilege is one that is so very timely here in the US. The issues seem to me to be the same whether we are talking race — white privilege — or culture — American exceptionalism.  How do we step out of ourselves enough to see how we come across?

 

How about you? Shall we talk about American exceptionalism or white privilege today?  How important to you are these issues? How new to you are they?  

32 Responses

  1. Pamela
    | Reply

    Interesting concept, Isabelle. I applaud your adventurous traveling spirit. Although I have visited many countries in Europe and Asia, it has been via air, and then as a tourist. On one point, let me add that I have visited/lived in many many states in America, as a tourist as well as a resident, and I find so many differences in each area of the large United States that sometimes I think of each area as a separate country (the South, the Southwest, the West, the East Coast, the Midwest, etc.). In each of these areas, though, I find arrogant people and shy, self-effacing people. I find different personalities in all races and all colors and both sexes. That said, yes, Americans are privileged in the sense that they live in a wealthy and powerful country compared to others. But there are many Americans who do not feel wealthy nor powerful. I have no answer to your theory here, but just observations. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here, and thanks to Janet for hosting you.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks so much for starting us off, Pam.

      America is certainly a mix. I am reminded as I read your Comment of how advertising was, for so very long, all aimed at folks our age and race. We were the baby boomers, the largest buying bloc around, and most of pop culture bowed to us. I only appreciated this when it stopped. I’m wondering if my inability to recognize that fact while it was going on is in some way related to what Isabelle is talking about.

      AND, my other question (hypothesis; how I wish I were back in school) has to do with how much responsibility the “other” has in applying this “exceptionalism” to us. I know when was in Peace Corps, Woody and I were the recipients of much unexpected attention. He once said, “This must be what a Rock Star feels like, but without the income.”

      Thanks for stopping by.

      • Isabelle Winkler
        | Reply

        Yes, Janet!

        I am convinced that the loss of a privilege is felt stronger than anything else.

        This is exactly what I meant. How did you deal with that “exceptionalism”? How did you react? How did you distinguish between hospitality and privilege? How did you give back? How did you elevate people to feel equal?
        Isabelle Winkler recently posted…MEANWHILE SOMEWHERE ELSEMy Profile

        • Janet Givens
          | Reply

          All good questions and most of them answered in the memoir. 🙂

          Do I now doubt that the friendship I felt extended to me there wasn’t a mere acknowledgment of their newly-elevated status as “friend of the American?” I choose not to, but that is all. As for the whispers and accolades of the strangers on the street (inside a crowded bus was worse), we ignored it mostly. I do talk on the book (or is it the companion? I now forget) about how uncomfortable I felt when my students stood up when I came in the room. That took some time to get over. If ever. I may have just numbed out to it. American egalitarianism kept coming to my mind while there. We like to believe in equality. Whether real or not.

    • Isabelle Winkler
      | Reply

      Thank you for chiming in, Pamela!

      Your idea about America as several “countries” sounds spot on. I can’t wait to explore this diversity.

      Privilege appears in different forms, and within America the discourse is different. Race, age and social class naturally play a bigger role there.

      What I find interesting when moving this conflict abroad is that those things become less important. Compared to other countries, so-called poor Americans are rich. It allows us to recognise the privilege that hides underneath.
      It’s one step removed, less personal and I have the chance to look at myself with other people’s eyes. It also takes away my ability to put what has been said into a context, that makes my action seem ok to my friends.

      Privilege is hard to talk about because it hurts and can get ugly pretty quickly. We never stop doubting the person that points out our privilege, because if we look in the mirror, it’s invisible. Will we ever see the flaws in the systems that open doors for us? I don’t think we will. Also, just because we understand that we are privileged in one way, doesn’t mean that we get all the other ways we are privileged. We can be underprivileged and privileged at the same time.

      What surprised me about the situation described in the post, was that I didn’t experience this particular American as arrogant OR full of himself. He was kind and interested in general, he lit up the room. I didn’t feel threatened by him. If anything, I was amused about his “Americanism”.
      Isabelle Winkler recently posted…MEANWHILE SOMEWHERE ELSEMy Profile

  2. Susan Jackson
    | Reply

    It is unfortunate that some people think they are so important. As an American who has lived around the world I am happy that I have had enough life experiences to realize that I am just a little link in a chain and everyone deserves equal treatment. I just wish more Americans would realize how lucky they are and have more empathy for others around the world. My husband constantly (especially when watching the news) comments on how Americans don’t realize how lucky they are–he lived all over Europe for about 45 yrs.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Susan,

      I loved your comment about being the “little link in a chain.” It brings back that “it takes a village” idea but in a more important way I think. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. My husband and I have spent a good deal of time in both Denmark and Holland and I’m wondering if your husband lived in either of those. We think they’ve got things pretty darned great (well, Dutch weather could use a boost!). Thanks for stopping by.

      • Susan Jackson
        | Reply

        Hi Janet–no, we lived in Greece, Germany, England, France, Iceland, Turkey, Italy and the USA both in the military, my husband also as a contractor and both of us as civil service.

  3. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    Thanks Janet and Isabelle. Janet, “American exceptionalism” seems to me a term that has been co-opted in recent times by neo-conservatives as a way to justify economic and military imperialism, and to absolve America of responsibility or blame for the myriad ways in which it contributes to suffering and injustice in the world. I have developed a serious aversion to the term as of late.

    Isabelle, I found it most interesting that you note that your gender is part of your privilege. In America, we tend to view white male privilege as perhaps the highest form, with good reasons (both historical and present). But I can see how being a white woman could also bestow great privilege, particularly through your observation that you are viewed as trusted and non-threatening. I realize that I tend to view women more favorably in these ways, and also know that I have been viewed cautiously or suspiciously at times by others by virtue of being a man. I had never fully considered this in the context of privilege, but I can see that it fits well in the discussion.

    I suspect that Americans traveling abroad may be even more entitled and privileged than most. World travelers here tend to be older, wealthier, white, and more “privileged” than most. Many, it seems, tend to view the world as their personal “wait staff,” existing to cater to their wants and needs. Or, they tend to be relatively privileged youth, who view it as their oyster. Of course, this is me painting in very broad strokes. I will be interested to learn your views on American privilege after your visit the States. I’m sure it will be most enlightening :).
    Tim Fearnside recently posted…70 from the ’70’sMy Profile

    • Isabelle Winkler
      | Reply

      Thank you, Tim!

      I viewed privilege in much the same way. But I now understand that privilege is given to people by gatekeepers. It is GIVEN. That’s why most people react poorly when we imply that their achievements have been helped along by privilege. At first glance, it seems unfair. After all, they never asked for it. (Advertisement and Babyboomers, Janets earlier comment!)

      It’s important to keep in mind that those gatekeepers can be male, female or gender non-conforming. In the case of local culture, women are the gatekeepers. They are the communicators for everything you can’t buy with money.

      Of course, it’s different if you are travelling as a tourist, with a thick wallet. Most of the privilege given to you, won’t be visible. That’s where the entitlement comes in. It’s the behaviour that is most embarrassingly visible in airports and hotels when Americans walk around like they own the place.

      I find the mixing of the word entitlement and privilege problematic. These words don’t mean the same thing. Am I absolutely bonkers if I proclaim that not every American is entitled, but every American is privileged?

      • Tim Fearnside
        | Reply

        “But I now understand that privilege is given to people by gatekeepers. It is GIVEN. That’s why most people react poorly when we imply that their achievements have been helped along by privilege.”

        Isabelle – this is one of the best things I’ve read this week ^^. Thanks for helping me to think about and understand it better :). – Tim
        Tim Fearnside recently posted…70 from the ’70’sMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Tim.

      I hear your point on “exceptionalism.” I must not watch enough CNN, for I’d not noticed that. Where I’d heard it used most is this idea that America is exceptional, God’s chosen people, and therefore better than others. That drives me batty, for it screams out “I have not seen the world.” Of course, we do have much to be proud of (or did!) and grateful for. I came to appreciate that anew while in Kazakhstan.

      So now I’m thinking about “gratitude” as it relates to “privilege.” Maybe different spheres. Psych vs. poli sci.

  4. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    Thanks everyone. Tim and Isabelle, Susan and Pamela. I’m totally enjoying this ongoing conversation and I thank you all for giving your attention to what I think is a vitally important topic. I want to give thought to my replies and at the moment I’m wearing my beloved “Grandma Janet” hat.

    Isabelle and Tim, I like how you both distinguish between privilege and entitlement. Though you have different and equally legitimate (IMO) reasons for doing so, I must admit to not giving this distinction much thought. And, I want to chew on this a bit more before I form my opinion.

    I’ll be back.

    • Tim Fearnside
      | Reply

      Enjoy your family, Janet!
      Tim Fearnside recently posted…70 from the ’70’sMy Profile

      • Janet Givens
        | Reply

        All good questions and most of them answered in the memoir. 🙂

        Do I now doubt that the friendship I felt extended to me there wasn’t a mere acknowledgment of their newly-elevated status as “friend of the American?” I choose not to, but that is all. As for the whispers and accolades of the strangers on the street (inside a crowded bus was worse), we ignored it mostly. I do talk on the book (or is it the companion? I now forget) about how uncomfortable I felt when my students stood up when I came in the room. That took some time to get over. If ever. I may have just numbed out to it. American egalitarianism kept coming to my mind while there. We like to believe in equality. Whether real or not.

      • Janet Givens
        | Reply

        I am Tim. Thanks. But oh how exhausted I am.
        Janet Givens recently posted…Seeing Ourselves Through Others’ Eyes: Isabelle Winkler 2My Profile

  5. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    Such an interesting post, Isabelle! Thank you.
    I think we Americans carry our privilege unconsciously, though as Pam says there are many nations within our country. Still, I can see how the thought of working with an American filmmaker might seem more appealing–glamorous perhaps–and something with more of a future than working with the Romanian who seemed unfocused. Though I actually see many “foreign” films, the American film industry is legendary–Hollywood still beckons, I suppose. I heard someone on NPR say that Stalin loved and secretly screened Hollywood westerns. Now I’m wondering how things might change with our current president.

    I thought it was interesting how you described your own privilege as a white, German woman. I think you are right to some extent. Though, as I’m currently working on two reference books about rape, I also think there are those who see any woman as weak and vulnerable, and not privileged.

    Also–as I try to whip into shape articles by contributors–not following the rules does not seem limited to Americans. 😉
    Merril Smith recently posted…Falling StarsMy Profile

  6. Isabelle Winkler
    | Reply

    Hahaha, yes, Merril! Rules..! Thank you for commenting.

    The subject of rape and privilege is so complicated. Before I started to venture into the wide world, people warned me about the potential of getting raped on my travels. Staying in places where women are the gatekeepers really almost eliminates this from the dangers I have to actively protect myself against. There are “safe places” I can retreat to. Those are really important…

    “Though, as I’m currently working on two reference books about rape, I also think there are those who see any woman as weak and vulnerable, and not privileged.” I was wondering, are you talking about men, women or both? Because this is really interesting and actually exactly where I was coming from. I knew exactly when I had no privilege, but when I did have it, I wasn’t aware of it. That’s why watching someone else unaware of their privilege gave me a template for discovering/realising my own.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      “I knew exactly when I had no privilege, but when I did have it, I wasn’t aware of it.” This is the essence of our issue here in the US around race. Thanks for putting it so succinctly.

  7. Susan Jackson
    | Reply

    I never hear “exceptionalism”. We think we are the chosen people–nope, I must run in the wrong circles as I have never heard that. Heavens forbid.

  8. Terry Bryan
    | Reply

    I once remarked to a friend that I was scared to travel the backroads of South Carolina. She informed me I had no reason to worry, as I was white, female, intelligent, educated, and the good old boys would bend backwards and sideways to help me any way they could. Turns out she was right. Women really do run the south…white women, that is.

  9. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    Hi Isabelle,

    We’ve talked here of privilege as something bestowed upon one by another. We’ve talked about it in relation to entitlement or exceptionalism. We’ve discussed its invisibility and I’ve wondered about its relationship to gratitude. Now, as I reread the earlier comments in a much quieter house, I’m struck by its relativity. Might we rank order privilege (if we were so inclined)? Americans at one end, Canadians next, then Scandinavians, etc. or is it more like pregnancy: you either are of yours not? Privilege, to me, is an important topic to talk more openly about, massage our constructs of what it means. Remove its mystery. Thanks so much for getting me started on it.

    • Isabelle Winkler
      | Reply

      Hi Janet,

      I find ranking privilege almost impossible because of its fluidity. I understand it as an underlying construct. A way to describe and recognise inequalities that lie beneath. (On the smallest scale.)

      Ranking nations will only get you so far because it depends on the surrounding circumstances. If you wanted to rank privilege, it would have to be first to third world countries. I find it complicated to get much more specific than that. One question that comes to mind to illustrate this is healthcare. Is an American privileged in that regard compared to other first world countries?

      Now, within all countries socio-economics and race are important. It’s not only in America that people are discriminated against because they are black, poor, not white enough, funny looking, queer, gender non-conforming, disabled or just old. It’s a universal problem.

      To me, privilege is best understood as a long corridor with numerous doors. Depending on your race and socio-economic background some will close before you. You will have to do something to open them again. The more privilege you have, the fewer doors will close. The important thing with this metaphor is to understand that people only see these doors when they close. (In my mind the corridor is all white, and the doors invisibly shoot out of the walls.)

      The thing we can do, as people who encounter a smaller amount of doors is to turn around and check if someone has been held up. Sometimes we can expand our privilege to them. That can be done by checking in and asking them why they are not with you anymore. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a handout (potentially condescending). The more meaningful and revolutionary thing would be to become aware of the doors of which WE are the gatekeepers.

      Because everybody is a gatekeeper.

      It can be anything from a book club, a choir or a sports event. Wherever we can say, “Hi you, come and join us!” to someone who is standing in a corner or elevate the life experiences and opinions of someone else, there is some privilege in the room. That person had to open a couple of doors before entering this space. The chances are that by now this person is exhausted and convinced her/she shouldn’t even be here.

      On privilege and gratitude:
      I don’t think they are that closely intertwined. Do you mean that feeling gratitude influences our privilege? If so, I don’t believe they are interconnected. Gratitude is something private, and privilege is external. Of course, we can internalise privilege, but can we externalise gratitude?

      As always, looking forward to your response.
      Isabelle Winkler recently posted…MEANWHILE SOMEWHERE ELSEMy Profile

      • Janet Givens
        | Reply

        Hi Isabelle,

        No, I’m not thinking gratitude influences privilege. I’m thinking more along the lines of knowing or recognizing our privilege and rather than feeling guilty or whatever, one feels grateful for it. It can be empowering and, as you mentioned, those with that privilege can use it (and are often the only ones who can use it) to include, invite, welcome the other. It’s a matter of not taking it for granted, not wasting it. I was born with a certain amount of privilege, I married into even more. I am very grateful for this and hope I do not waste it. I’m the one who can identify what feels unfair — not to ME, but to another.

        As for ranking, I still think I rank order various types of privilege, even half consciously. And it is fluid, it is for that moment. Today, for example, I’m very aware of my elevated position as the homeowner to visitors we recently saw off. I got to control who came and when. And I did, at one point, exclude. I’m not totally sure how I feel about that, though. Boundaries, the maintenance of boundaries, is also something that privilege affords. Which raises the idea of the relationship between status and privilege.

        So many directions to go here. It’s been enlightening.

        • Isabelle Winkler
          | Reply

          Thank you for clarifying, Janet. This was a new-to-me way of looking at it. It goes straight into my little back of perspectives. Thank you, enlightening indeed!

          • Janet Givens
            |

            This feels like the very best of what open communication can accomplish. We both walk away with new understanding and appreciation. I’m particularly taken with your (haunting?) image of the long hallway with many doors. Thank you for that and for so much else.

  10. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    Isabelle, here we are on Monday. The week went by so quickly, thanks to your timely and provocative Comments and Replies. I thank you for your interest, your energy, and your commitment to this issue of unrecognized privilege. And I thank you for your story here. I hope we see more of you as the weeks and months go by. Your perspective is always welcome.

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