who’s the snowflake?

I was visiting in Sweden a couple of summers ago, and had to get up early for an appointment. On my way back I passed through a park. It was still early, probably before nine, and the air was cool the way it is in the summer when you know the day is going to be hot.

There were a couple of blonde girls raking leaves in the park. They looked like volleyball players, tall, and strong. I couldn’t figure out what they were doing, until I remembered that Swedish high school and college students often have summer jobs filling in during the regular staff’s summer vacation. (Swedish employees have 6 or 7 weeks of paid vacation time, and usually take 4 of those weeks back to back during the summer.) Outdoor summer jobs are the best, because, well, you get to spend all summer outdoors. When I was growing up you’d only get the outdoor jobs through connections.

Right now I’m also remembering an affluent young woman, one of my students in Silicon Valley. She had grown up on a ranch in Morgan Hill, in the south end of the San Francisco Bay Area. As an undergraduate she spent a semester studying abroad in London.

When she came back to school in California I asked her about her time in London. It was obvious there was something she didn’t want to say. It took some prodding, but finally she told the class that in London had been the first time she’d seen white people do manual labor. White people, looking just like herself, had cleaned, sold tickets to the Underground, worked in the supermarkets, and swept the streets. She’d never before experienced anything like it.

This Los Angeles Times story talks about how the California wine industry has such a hard time finding workers after president Trump’s proposed crackdown on undocumented immigrants that they are forced to pay way more than the minimum wage. From the story:

Some farmers are even giving laborers benefits normally reserved for white-collar professionals, like 401(k) plans, health insurance, subsidized housing and profit-sharing bonuses. Full-timers at Silverado Farming, for example, get most of those sweeteners, plus 10 paid vacation days, eight paid holidays, and can earn their hourly rate to take English classes.

The story’s headline? “Wages rise on California farms. Americans still don’t want the job.”

playing bricklayers

For more about the lucrative business of having well-meaning Western young adults volunteer in 3rd world countries, also known as voluntourismhere is a piece that talks, among other things, about what happens when non-professionals get to play bricklayers. And, here is one that (possibly coins, but at least) brilliantly explains the concept of voluntourism. Both of these stories were sent to me by students, themselves smack in middle of the target group for organizations that offer ‘volunteering’ experiences.

american whiteness


Here is a fun read that came to me through Facebook: The Four Cutest Ways To Photograph Yourself Hugging Third-World Children. Number 3: While wearing traditional native garb, is my personal favorite. Angelina Jolie comes to mind, obviously. You can see her moving in on a little girl above.

I’m sure lots of people would disagree with me, but I do think white women’s tendency to wear traditional garb when traveling has to do with white people’s need to be somebody. In a society that takes whiteness for granted, white people often feel invisible. As if they were the only ones without culture, they have to seek out the cultures of others to get some sense of belonging.

All of this is backwards, of course, since whiteness in itself is a ticket to the ultimate belonging, the comfort that comes with being seen as ‘normal’. But, the first sign of privilege is that you are blind to it when you have it.

Some years ago I had a student, a white young man at the predominantly white Catholic campus where I teach. His name wasn’t Patrick O’Brien, but it could have been. In one discussion he told the class that, “Had I been Mexican, my life would have been easier.” The difficulty he experienced in his life was exactly what I talk about above. He felt that he didn’t know who he was.

Maybe at this point I should repeat the basic facts: A white young man, native speaker of American English, in college on a predominantly white campus founded on the religious principles shared by his own family, had a feeling of not knowing who he was in the world. He imagined that if instead he had been Hector Gonzalez, and his skin had been brown, his speech accented, he would have known his own identity.

Culture belongs to ‘the other’. Identity belongs to the brown, the gay, maybe to the women.

Another white young man wrote in an essay last quarter something along the lines of “seeing your own life played out in the media over and over again is addicting”. He was talking about a baseball movie he had seen as a child, that had featured kids that could have been any one of his friends, or himself.

Understanding that hegemony is addicting is a huge step forward from thinking that you don’t have an identity when you are white. Maybe there is hope, after all.