As a heterosexual, American-born older, middle/upper class white guy, I am used to getting most things when I want them.
Recently I found myself at the Vancouver airport with no choice but to sit (yes, sit) in line to get a Canadian work permit. I was there to deliver a 90-minute keynote speech the next day on inclusion and leadership to 200 attorneys. When I arrived at the immigration hall –– and to my immediate dismay –– I noticed just one immigration agent processing applications for a line of 75 people! My dismay immediately started trending into annoyance, until I looked around and realized I was a fish-out-of-water ––that is, the only white person in line. The only other white person in the room was the agent.
Having no other choice I settled into my seat and began taking in the scene before me. All around me were non-white immigrants from numerous countries. They were courteous, quiet and respectful. Many around me were applying for either temporary immigrant, work or study permits. Many spoke other languages and some spoke no English at all. Yet whereas I was annoyed, they waited patiently. No murmurs. No grumbling.
Observing the scene, I recognized how new and unusual this reality was for me. I reflected how rarely I have to stand in a line such as this. I thought of all the ways my privilege helps me avoid such annoyances (like holding platinum-level frequent flyer status and clubs, Global Entry card, and on and on). My income and social status let me buy whatever I need, whenever I need it.
The agent was courteous, respectful—yet officious. I listened to an exchange at the counter between him (the other white guy) and a young Asian woman.
Agent: “Why are you coming to Canada?” Young Asian woman: “To study”.
Agent jokes: “You have to bring that B+ up to an A, huh?” “Where are you going to live while you study?” he asked as he fiddled at a keyboard, looking at his screen not making eye contact. “What will you get out of this? A diploma?” he asks returning his attention back to his screen. All the while, the young woman waits silently, looking straight ahead, not making any small talk.
Observing, I realize I can’t remember the last time I ever had my fate in the hands of an authoritative stranger deciding if I can go to school or apply for a job or even reside here? I just go and do as I wish. His printer comes to life and the noise draws me back to the counter.
Agent: “So this permit is for study only, you cannot work. Valid to March 31, 2017.” He signs, staples and sends her off to the cashier to pay her study permit fee. “You are all set to go. Goodbye.” He sits looking at his screen for a few moments and says, “Ok, next” and we all eagerly shuffle to the next open chair.
The pattern continues, “Are you going to work or study?” “Where will you live?” ”How much money did you bring to take care of yourself?” “Why did they refuse you the first time?”
I began to reflect on how my citizenship is one of those things I take for granted. My place, my home, feeling rooted. What would my life be like as a stranger in a strange land, not speaking the language, having to start over?
For two hours as the 74 people in front of me get their turn with the agent, I observe that nobody ever asks the agent a clarifying question or makes a side comment; they wait dutifully responding only when a question is tossed their way. It is all business as their lives depend on the 5 minutes in front of the white guy. What was once annoyance at having to wait for over 2 hours now has been an opportunity to again notice my privilege. I am moved.
I wait my turn and finally I walk up to the agent. We bond instantly. I ask how he’s doing, he sighs and says they just dropped a new computer system on them with no training and he is less than impressed. His officious attitude has changed.
Then he looks at my papers, stares directly at me with his head cocked and asks, “What are you doing here in Canada?” I respond, “Delivering a 90-minute presentation to 200 attorneys.” He reads his screen for a few minutes and says sympathetically, “I don’t know why you were told to stand in this line, but you don’t need one. Sorry, you will never get back the two hours you just wasted here.”
I thank him, and as I depart the hall, I wonder if I would have had a similar outcome if I had a different skin color, nationality, accent or gender.