Alternatives: On Identity and Privilege

By Benedict Darren, class of 2017

Once, as I walked home from where my school bus had dropped me off, I saw two boys walking towards me.

There was something curious about them, I thought.

Were they holding hands?

I turned my head away as they walked past me – rejecting, condemning.

Another time, I was in school, and my father urgently pulled me out of class. We drove in a nauseating frantic to the airport. Demonstrators chanted their cause from the back of over-filled trucks. Soon thereafter, I was on a flight bound for Singapore. Indonesia’s 30-year dictatorship was brought to an end by a populist revolt, with families like mine targeted as part of an ethnic pogrom.

Why did I have to leave my friends back home?

Not too long ago, I was in a grocery store in downtown Toronto, hurrying down aisles to complete my shopping as efficiently and as quickly as possible. A paraplegic man seemed to struggle to retrieve an item from a shelf. I wondered to myself if offering my help would be patronizing, if I would be underestimating his capabilities.

I offered my help.

I argued with my mother as to why I always needed to accompany my younger sister when she needed to walk somewhere.

My parents divorced. My religion teacher says divorce is contrary to the Word of God.

Two of my best friends come out to me. They struggle.

I walk into a washroom labeled with a person – standing, four limbs, no skirt.

I am all of these: Indonesian; male; ethnic Chinese; able-bodied; son of divorced parents; cis-gendered; Canadian; immigrant; heterosexual; brother; partner; Catholic; friend; medical student.

I switch; I conform; I delete; I add; I modify – such is the nature of carrying multiple identities at once. Different settings pull us in different directions; we twist and turn to fit the mold. At the same time, my experiences twist me and turn me in a different way than others. Getting the right fit is tough.

I wanted to become a better ally. I wanted my beliefs to match my reality and the reality of the people surrounding me. I shook off my religious self — the one that had attended church every week and participated actively in my parish’s youth group. Religion, but not faith, had lost its relevance on me. I am comfortable.

I questioned why it had been our family that had the misfortune of being targeted as collateral damage in the riots that constituted revolt in Jakarta at that time. My family, it turns out, belongs to an ethnic group that composed 3% of the population, but held 80% of the nation’s wealth. We were the so-called “market-dominant minorities.” Neither my family nor I had ever known this unchecked privilege.

As an undergraduate, my narrow worldview was pried open by the diversity of peers I encountered. I had not realized that my gender identity had to necessarily match my biological sex. The message of personal responsibility, which was touted endlessly in high school, began to buckle into itself as I met those whose struggles could not have been a result of their choices. I saw that poverty is not chosen or earned or deserved. I saw the pathological patterns of power which arrange the hierarchy and, thereby, the inequalities of society.

Indigeneity emerged as a core part of my identity. Not because it ever belonged to me, however. Far from that. It was because I had to live alongside it for the better part of my years. In Indonesia, the indigenous pribumi were my caregivers, my teachers, and yet, were always on the receiving end of mistrust from the ethnic Chinese community. In Canada, the indigenous First Nations, Inuit, and Metis are my peers, my teachers and yet, continue to be the subject of racist remarks and characterizations. In Indonesia, the pribumi majority were the working class, the rabble, and the impoverished. In Canada, Aboriginal peoples continue to have lower health outcomes, unstable housing, and to have their ancestral lands appropriated.

I cannot lose this part of myself. I always saw the physician and the advocate, working in solidarity with the vulnerable and marginalized, as inextricably intertwined personas. I am worried that, as I transit through the rigor and demands of the medical curriculum, I am losing this ideal – that it is dissipating.

As a medical student and future physician, I am in a position of profound privilege. Every morning, I carry my neon green backpack with pride and accomplishment. But without tending to the inequalities I bear witness to daily, it is all a farce. And I shall not be a farce unto myself.

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