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.
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.
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.
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.]
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?