A U.S. Immigrant's Personal Account of Analyzing Privilege
Dajana Rogulja, University of Colorado Denver
My family first immigrated to the United States from Yugoslavia in the year 2001 as a family of four, which includes my mother, father, grandmother, and myself. We were fortunate or privileged enough to be able to obtain this opportunity. During the 15 years that my family has lived here, I have observed some instances in which I lack the privileges that a natural-born White American individual has and other instances in which I was more privileged than others such as one of my friends, an immigrant from Ethiopia.
I was seven years old when I first set foot into this country. I had just started first grade in elementary school in the United States. The school I attended was Holly-Hills elementary school, which at the time was slightly diverse but still a predominantly White middle class American community. My peers had already established little cliques and had been grouped. I came into the school as an outsider, who dressed and behaved differently. I wore my older cousin’s hand-me-downs, I looked like a little boy, and I spoke differently. I remember feeling as if there was a barrier between me and the other kids on the playground during recess. I used to hear the other children snicker and give me strange stares during recess because I would usually play by myself. I felt as if I was unwanted within their social circles, therefore I did not even try to establish friendships or attempt to integrate myself among one of the cliques.
I was a very quiet child, mostly due to the fact that I could not speak English or communicate with anyone. But, I was able to grasp the English language rather quickly. Thankfully, I was privileged enough to have the opportunity to be accepted within my ESL classroom. I am identifiably White, and truthfully, I do not believe that my hardships come because of my race. My friend on the other hand, a Black immigrant from Ethiopia, attended the same ESL class with me. To this day, we discuss our ESL classroom and some of the interesting distinctions between how our teacher interacted with us. The teacher treated my friend differently than everyone else. For example, I remember the teacher spending drastically more time explaining certain concepts to her than she did others. This was not because my friend was not understanding the concepts. She was probably more advanced and a faster learner than I was. Nonetheless, the teacher singled her out, making her feel less alike than everyone else. Instances like this help me to truly understand how privileged I am in the United States. If I had felt as if I was an outsider in a predominantly White middle class elementary school, and if I felt as if I was unwanted, then I can only imagine what my dear friend experienced.
As I went through my education, I found it easier to fit in and establish bonds and friendships, even join certain cliques. My Whiteness helped me to do such things and made my hardships less than those of African American individuals. I was also fortunate to have come to the United States at an early age, which allowed me to grasp the language without having an initial accent. Once I had perfected the English language, my peers became more accepting toward me. Most of the time, they had no clue that I came from a different cultural background unless I chose to disclose.
My parents, however, experienced completely different obstacles than I did. They came from a different cultural background and had not initially learned English prior to immigrating here. They have learned to speak English now, but they carry the burden of very thick accents.
Once I reached the age of 15, my parents started to heavily rely on me for translating and culture brokering for them in various situations. There are instances in which I have experienced tremendous tensions between individuals and my parents because of the simple fact that they spoke English in a very broken up way and with thick accents.
I remember being in a bank when my father was attempting to finance a loan to buy a car. After hearing my father explain his financial situations for about 15 minutes, the banker turned to my dad, stared at him blatantly, and said, “Sir, I have no idea what you just said to me. Does your wife or daughter speak better English?” Personally, I do not think the gentleman had any negative intentions in mind. I do not think that he was trying to deliberately demean my father, but one could understand the humility one would feel when put in a situation as such. From then on, my parents never truly felt comfortable speaking publically in formal situations, and I still do most of the communicating for them.
My family and my close friend have been the building blocks to my enlightenment. Through their experiences, I have learned to identify my privileges. I do not take my privilege for granted, and I am cautious of my own stereotypical thoughts when it comes to other individuals and their cultural ethnicities. As an immigrant child, I was privileged enough to be raised with two sets of norms and values. My family has embedded the Yugoslavian norms within me but I have adapted toward the American norms at an early age as well. I thank my parents for raising me within traditional values and allowing me to assimilate to American values at my own pace. My Yugoslavian values that my parents emphasized during my childhood kept me grounded and within a realistic outlook on life. I hold very close to my family and am able to confide in them for help as well as they rely on me to be a tool and mentor for certain things.
My family has grown to be the reason to which I pursue higher education. I desire to be able to fully take care of my parents, whatever the circumstance. They are the reason why I am so privileged, why I have grown to prosper in the United States, why I am here to begin with. Although my Yugoslavian roots keep me centralized, my American cultural values keep me well-adjusted and assimilated so that I do not experience much prejudice and discrimination. I am considered, and I consider myself, a fairly privileged individual within American Society.