October 23 – Western Privilege

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In my last blog post, I mentioned the notion of Western privilege. In 1988, Peggy McIntosh, the Associate Director of the Wellesley Centres for Women wrote a seminal article titled White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. I read this article in a second year course during my undergraduate course taught by an amazing professor (Dr. Cristabel Sethna) on Power, Race and Gender. Reading that article as part of that course opened my eyes to a new way of conceptualizing and recognizing the power and privilege that I, as a white person, experience in the world.

McIntosh did not use the word “invisible” lightly – to me, it is the defining feature of privilege. Often people who experience (unearned) privilege are unaware of the “social, legal and economic constructs of how race benefits white people in their daily lives”. This is not because people don’t care, but because, coming from the dominant culture/class/gender/religion/country, these privileges are unacknowledged (unaware/naturalized/unintentional). While people often don’t see the privilege they experience, they also don’t see the systems of oppression/discrimination because oppression rears its head in the form of micro-aggressions or everyday forms of sexism/racism, etc. For the dominant group, privilege is often naturalized, which means that those from the dominant group don’t see it, or they are able to gloss over it.

McIntosh lists 50 different examples of how white racial superiority is structurally enforced within American (and Western) society. Interestingly, basically every single item on the list, created in the 1980s, is still relevant today. In the list, the most poignant examples of white privilege for me are:

  • I can be pretty sure that if I talk to the ‘person in charge’, I will be facing a person of my own race (this exists also largely with male privilege – “I will be facing person of the same gender”),
  • I am never asked to speak for all of the people of my racial group, and,
  • when I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my colour made it what it is (this also extends to male privilege – “I am shown that people of my gender made it what it is).

If your first response to these examples is anger or “that’s not true”, sit with that feeling for a moment. Try adding to the beginning “On average…”. Sometimes the response to knowing that we are perpetuating discrimination is to say “it’s not my fault”, or “I’m not a bad person”. No one is saying that. But it is important to expand the voices you listen to, to acknowledge other people’s experiences and realities, and to realize that your experience is not universal.

The list from McIntosh and her colleagues goes on and on. What it taught me was that most of the oppression/violence/trauma experienced by people remain micro moments…it’s difficult to recognize unearned privilege until you no longer experience it or until it is pointed out to you. I thought, when I started university, that I was a very open-minded and culturally sensitive person that was invested in social justice. But I was completely unaware of the unearned privilege that I experienced, based on my skin colour, and how I unknowingly contributed to systemic oppression. Systemic oppression for many is invisible until you engage in introspection and listen to different voices.

McIntosh’s list demonstrates how broader structures of oppression are experienced in small but very real, daily ways by people. These are small enough that often they go un-verbalized. Discussing them daily would be too time consuming, or too painful, especially if the response from sharing is to be told that you are too sensitive, too politically correct, no one listens, or nothing changes. However, while finding “skin tone” Band-Aids that don’t match YOUR skin tone (another example) may not be a life or death moment, collectively, these small moments have a big impact.

Privilege is not just experienced by men, or by white people. It is also experienced by societies and countries. While in Uganda, I have been contemplating the unearned privilege I have, given that I come from Canada. While intersectionality means that not everyone everywhere experiences privilege in the same way (based on ones’ gender/religion/race/socioeconomic status/sexual orientation/etc), this is a list of things that many people living in Western countries experience:

  1. I can apply for a visa and, if denied, I know it is not because of the country I come from.
  2. People from my country travel to other countries to do voluntourism.
  3. People from my country travel to other countries to do mission work, to ‘save’ people.
  4. I can easily access news about my country from abroad.
  5. I am never labelled as ‘backwards’, ‘cultural’, ‘helpless’, or ‘irrational’.
  6. I can access relatively affordable communication technology and stay in touch with family and friends around the world.
  7. My country participated in, or benefited from, colonialism.
  8. Most educational degrees received from my country are recognized by foreign institutions or are easily transferable to other countries.
  9. I can choose to learn, or not learn, about other places around the world. My choice will not have a bearing on people’s opinion of me and will not affect my opportunities.
  10. I have relatively easy access to credit and banking.
  11. I have relatively easy access to different means of transportation.
  12. I’ve never had to consistently ask family/friends/co-workers/community for money.
  13. When I travel, I don’t have to explain where I come from.
  14. No one assumes/thinks/worries that I will seek asylum/refugee status when I travel.
  15. Policies made in my country have an impact in other countries. I don’t have to worry about food and products being dumped into my country.
  16. Good quality primary and secondary education are free where I come from.
  17. Whether I use them or not, I have relatively more access to opportunities.
  18. I can move to another country and be called an expatriate, instead of an immigrant.
  19. The currency of my country is relatively strong. Moving to another country will likely make purchasing/buying things easier, not harder.
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October 16 – Questions

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When I was 23, I lived in Udaipur, India for 3 months. When I was 24, I moved to Seoul, South Korea to teach English for a year. I have traveled to Nicaragua, Thailand, Japan and Indonesia. Now, having lived in Uganda for almost 4 months and nearing the end of my time here, I have been reflecting on questions I often get asked by family and friends while I am away and when I return home.

The first question that I tend to get asked is: are you safe? Is it dangerous? This question stems from a place full of love and concern for my safety, but is a question that I wouldn’t really get asked if I was living in Switzerland, or even the United States. This question drips with colonial/post-colonial/Othering stereotypes. There is an assumption that these places are dangerous and that I am ‘brave’ to go there. ‘Developing’ spaces are painted as places that are always on the brink of war, where people are overcome by emotions, where there is corruption, a lack of law and order, and are scary to visit. Yes, scary places do exist to visit. And yes, while travelling, sometimes bad things do happen (although some/many of these can be attributed to a lack of cross-cultural competence). However, the places that I have lived in and been to are no where near close to being conflict zones. When responding to these questions, it is hard to realistically delve into the legitimate risks (Uganda has a much higher traffic accident rate than Canada, so I need to be cautious on the roads; as a white Westerner who appears to be affluent, I am more likely to be pit-pocketed than a local), what is the same as back home (just like in Canada, I don’t walk around by myself at night, because, just like in Canada, there might be a couple creepy people out there), and things that are plain silly (no, there is no civil war here. Or as I experience when living in South Korea, no North Korea is not going to drop a nuclear bomb on us). Only asking this question to people who visit countries in the Global South overlooks the fact that conflict, violence, and lack of safety are things that can happen anywhere. One of my professors was robbed in Barcelona, Spain. A girl in Kingston, Ontario was attacked outside of her house for speaking out against a Men’s Rights group while I was at Queen’s. Cops shut down a street in my hometown because there was someone stabbing people on the loose. We, as a society, seem to have designated certain areas as “safe”, which, to be honest, tend to be white, Western spaces, and “unsafe” spaces tend to be ‘ethnic’, ‘tribal’, or ‘developing’. When we designate the “other” as unsafe, we are (intentionally or unintentionally) glossing over the violence that exists in our own context.It’s not to say that bad things don’t happen in these spaces, or that they don’t have challenges, or you don’t need to take precautions, but it reflects the fact that we see ourselves as exceptional, as outside the realm of violence. This is especially damaging as it can also mask how we, as Canadians, are connected with the rest of the world: a Canadian-owned gold mining company, Barrick Gold, operating in Tanzania is facing backlash after a government inquiry which found that through its use of police force, 65 people have been killed and over 270 people injured (click here to read the story). Another Canadian mining company, Nevsun Resources, is fighting a lawsuit that it has used slavery in its mining operations in Eritrea (click here to read the story). The list goes on and on of Canadian companies who are engaged in resource extraction being party to human rights abuses and environmental degradation. Violence is not insular and not exceptional. We are all implicated.

Another question I get asked is: you must feel very grateful after seeing all the poverty over there? This one has usually stumped me. The easy/simple answer: Yes. I feel lucky. It’s hard to witness poverty. The slightly more thorough answer is: I am grateful for all of the privilege that I have. I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to travel. I am grateful that I have been able to go to school. I am grateful that I have the privilege of choice.

Both of these answers, however, are incomplete. The long answer takes a lot more time and isn’t one that most people expect/want to hear. Focusing on this type of gratitude implies (and creates) this weird power differential between us as ‘people who have things’ and them as ‘people who don’t have things’. Having studied voluntourism and listened to talks by people like the Kielburger brothers (celebrity-crazed, commercialized “We Days” anyone?), we are bombarded by messages about how travelling will change your life – it will make you realize all that you have (by seeing people who don’t have as many things – and yet can still smile and be happy!), make you a better person (by giving things to people/building a school), and change your values (building humility through helping people who have less than you).Travelling/voluntouring will transform you into a new/better person [insert Facebook profile picture of you with black children]!

This view of people who live differently than us is (as people to be compared against and who come up lacking) is ridiculously patronizing. It places us at the center, as the agents of change, going into a static/timeless culture to help them progress. It simplifies and reduces people. It negates the good, the positive, the instances where people over here have their s*!t figured out and know what’s up and instead focuses¬†on what people don’t have – instead of seeing people who have a way more environmental lifestyle, we see people who lack material things. Instead of seeing a child who is playing outside with their friends, we see a kid with no shoes and dirt on their face. Instead of seeing many conflicts as vestiges of colonialism/neo-colonialism, we see them as “tribal”. We gloss over the systems of community and reciprocity where people¬†pitch in for each other’s weddings, funerals and celebrations, where you greet people that you know and become friends with strangers (and they don’t think you’re crazy like back home), and you are physically active. We are surprised that people living in “places like this” can still smile and be happy. We get annoyed when people in developing countries express frustration at persistent inequality between countries (don’t they know we’re trying to help them?!).

People here, just like people everywhere, are just people, insofar that they’re all unique and complex. People are more than their sum parts. They are more than their poverty, their religion, their family, or their good/bad days. When we talk about the Global South/Developing world, we need to move away from paternalistic, simplistic and patronizing interpretations of people living in other areas. We need to check ourselves, and hold integrity and dignity as a core value. We don’t need Western, middle-class teenagers going to ‘Africa’ to build a school. We need those same teenagers to help level the playing field by holding corporations accountable, calling for changes to trade regulations, and holding governments accountable to fulfill their duties. We don’t need to “empower” people in other countries. We need to respect people who already know what they want to change in their own country (which often includes how Western countries need to stop patronizing/exploiting them). We need to work in solidarity and collaboration across cultures, which means taking an honest look at both the good and the bad of both the country you’re in, and the society you come from. So more than feeling grateful, I recognize the structural/Western privilege I enjoy by virtue of being born in Canada and I am lucky to meet and learn new things from wonderfully intelligent, kind people.

October 10 – Bushara Island

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At the end of September, Mimi and I went to visit 2 fellow interns, Nicole and Faye at the eco-resort they are working at on Bushara Island, which is in Lake Bunyonyi in Western Uganda. I fell in love. There are basically no words that can explain how lucky I feel to have witnessed this part of the world…so I will let pictures do it for me. All I can say is, you should go.

Click here to see more about Bushara Island Camp.