the ATM, the workers, and me–the white girl

A little while back, on a Friday morning, Caleb and I walked out of the front of our building on our way to his first-ever Abu Dhabi playdate. We were running late, but I needed to stop and get cash from the ATM machine built into the front of our building.

Standing in front of the machine was a group of about ten laborers, all wearing the bright blue jumpsuits of the street-cleaning crews.  They didn’t notice me as they laughed and chatted and took turns inserting their bank cards into the machine.

I figured it would take at least fifteen minutes for them all to finish their transactions, so I turned back around to ask the desk attendant in our lobby if he knew where I would find the next closest ATM.  He came out to the street–his uniform, of white shirt, black trousers, a jazzy tie, and some sort of epaulet type thing on his shoulders, looked much spiffier than the other men’s grimy blue coveralls.  Instead of pointing me towards the next ATM, he said something in a language I didn’t understand (Urdu? Tagalog? Arabic? Hindi?), jerked his chin at the men, and then waved his hand at me.

The laborers melted away from the ATM like ghosts and stood quietly to one side.

What to do?  I didn’t want to cause the desk attendant to lose face, so I didn’t want to not use the ATM. That would make him look bad in front of men he clearly considered to be his inferiors.  And yet the workers were there first, obviously, which means they should’ve been able to finish their business before I got my turn.

They all stared at me, waiting.  I felt Caleb’s head swiveling, looking at the desk attendant, looking at the laborers, looking at me.

I smiled, muttered my best “shukran” (Arabic for “thank you” — although I have no idea if anyone involved in this situation was a native Arabic speaker), got my money, muttered another thank-you, and darted to the curb with Caleb to hail a cab to his friend’s house.

In the back of the cab, Caleb said “mommy, why’d that man make the other guys let us go first?”

How to answer?  “Well,” I said, “those men were workers, and so the man in our building thought–”

Caleb interrupted: “I know. It’s because that machine is on our building. So it’s like it’s ours. So we get to use it first.”

I stopped. “Yep,” I said. “That’s right. It’s our machine.”

Sometimes it’s easy to forget here, in this city of expats (only about 19% of the population is native Emirati), that we’re living in a culture very different from our own.  You can trot around reveling in the weather and the deep blue sky and imagine you live outside LA, maybe, or Houston.  And then sometimes, whammo, my whiteness and my outsiderness sinks right down into my bones until I spin around in my head like a dervish. I have privilege because I’m a white expat; I have no privilege because I’m a woman; I am deferred to because I am a woman; I am suspect because I am white.

So yes, you’re right. I did bail on the teachable moment. I have a feeling that, unfortunately, there will be plenty more where that one came from.

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3 Responses to the ATM, the workers, and me–the white girl

  1. Dick Horwich December 12, 2011 at 12:55 am #

    There truly was no way to handle it fairly, equitably, gracefully. You did what you had to do, and in a few years you and Caleb can rehash it. One question: how would the dynamic have changed had it been Cyrus instead of you?

  2. Erica M December 12, 2011 at 1:50 am #

    Teachable moments can kiss my butt sometimes. Like your friend Dick Horwich said much more eloquently, you can revisit the incident later. Can I offer one possibility? Maybe your attendant explained to the workers you were in a hurry. Maybe he’d already warned them about hogging the machine. I sometimes assume my skin color is the reason for certain reactions, and sometimes it is, but sometimes it’s not.

  3. Deborah Quinn December 12, 2011 at 5:09 am #

    great comments…and of course, I don’t know. If cyrus came to the machine, probably nothing would have happened b/c he’s brown too, so the “us” “them” thing is less pronounced. Maybe the lobby clerk did say I was in a hurry, but his tone and hand gesture seemed to say “scat.” And the workers DO travel in clumps, actually, especially on Friday mornings, which makes me wonder if they get paid on Thursday night and then need to do financial transactions with banks back home. But I rarely see groups of female workers doing the same thing. Ah the puzzlement of expat life…

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