The insult hit me full in the face, catching me by surprise. It was just a glance, but a fierce one, a glaring shot hurled from a car window by someone I’d never met. I was shaken, but determined not to lose control of my car as I continued navigating towards my new home. I held the steering wheel steady, heart pounding and tried to recall what I might have done to offend.
Stink-eye, I soon learned was one way the Paradise Tax manifested itself. Along with an inflated cost of living and the pressure of 40,000 tourists, enmity was the price haolies pay to live on Maui. My husband Bob and I were adept at adjusting to cultural nuances by now, but this was the first time I’d experienced outright hostility.
I recently attended a conference designed to address climate adaptation with a focus on food inequality. Several of the food justice activists delivered strident tirades against the current system. Rather than focus on action, they railed against generations of injustice, assuming the mostly-white audience had no idea how it feels to be discriminated against. The anger was so unsettling and seemed so pointless that I had to leave the room.
For most of my life, my skin and facial features fit the approved profile. I was born wearing the chosen face, the face of the ruling majority in the country of my birth. I sailed through life effortlessly only occasionally hindered because I was female. My Caucasian birthright was a privilege and I must admit I took it for granted.
Racism was wrong, I knew. I was raised in the US, a country that embraces equality on paper but not on the streets. Growing up in the 60’s, I was aware of discrimination, but had always witnessed it from the sidelines. That day on Maui, I suddenly knew what it felt like to be hated because of how I looked.
I had been treated as an outsider in Belize, on Guam and in China too, only the discrimination was not as blatant. As I prepared to leave Belize, I promised Ana that I’d keep in touch. I mistook her silence for sadness until she said, “YOU can leave. I can’t.” We’d worked side-by-side for over a year and I had thought of us as equals. But every shared laugh and burden had been tainted by her knowing that I would blithely move on one day, leaving her behind. I cried the day I left Ana waving in the rear view mirror and I never heard from her again. We were of two different worlds and I should have known it all along.
On Guam I accepted the lower paying jobs that the local Chamorrans refused. In China I was politely received but gawked at from afar. “Lauwai!” I heard a worker call from atop an unfinished building, calling attention to my presence on the sidewalk below. “Stranger!” One of the door men at the Hyatt confessed that they referred to us as “da bizi” behind our backs. “Big nose.” I once saw a man nearly fall off his bicycle craning his neck for a look at the big nose on my white face.
Years later in West Africa, Bob and I were pestered by begging children and bullied by the elderly who demanded we stop and talk or perhaps hold their grandbabies who had never seen an Obruni (white man.) A few times someone would shout, “White man! Come here!” as we walked through town
“Aguanto” I whisper to myself when my chosen face becomes a target. Aguanto, Spanish for “endure” is a word I learned in Nicaragua where the kitchen help ruefully watched us scrape kitchen scraps into a bucket for the security dogs. “Your dogs eat better than our children” Maribel observed.
I’m thankful to have viewed discrimination from several angles. Stink-eye, demands and accusations are all part of the price I pay for being born white. Depending on where I am my face enables, estranges or hinders. When I run into discrimination, I bear it in silence and pay the paradise tax.