Friday, July 27, 2012

American privilege.

It's time to get all philosophical on you, bitches!

Basically I've had this kicking around in the back of my brain for awhile now, ruminating on it and trying to decide if it's a can of worms I want to open or not. I've decided that after a chance encounter today, it's time.

Right now in the skeptical/atheist movement there's a huge to-do about feminism, male privilege and sexual harassment. I've yet to toss my hat into that ring aside from a few comments on blog posts here and there because it's not really my fight. There are other, more informed people who can make better points than I can, and also I haven't found anyone embroiled in the whole mess yet who I agree with to the extent that I could throw my weight behind them. Right now I'm firmly in the corner with all the other people going, "Let's have a beer while they fight it out, shall we?"

An issue that's much closer to my heart and relevant to where I'm at right now is socioeconomic privilege, racial tensions and the American worldview. What led me to finally addressing this was earlier today when I stopped by my mechanic, Gordon's Automotive Service, to have a wheel tax inspection done so I can renew my vehicle registration. Mr. Gordon and I chatted for a bit, making jokes about how I never come around anymore. I told him to stop fixing my car so well and he'd see me more often. Mr. Gordon is the sweetest old man on the planet and I adore him.

Later, after one of his mechanics completed the inspection, they were ringing me up to pay and the mechanic who worked on my car asked me how I liked living in St. Kitts so far. I told him, "I love it here." And I honestly do. He and Mr. Gordon laughed and shook their heads. It's a reaction I've gotten before when I have expressed to Kittitians how much I truly enjoy living in this country. Either they don't believe me and think I'm lying because I'm afraid to insult them, or they think I'm nuts. Regardless, it always upsets me because I know it has a great deal to do with the fact that many students are loudly and unabashedly vocal about how much they hate living here.

I told them my reasons why I love it here: I grew up in Indiana, a land-locked state, where I didn't see the ocean for the first time until I was fourteen years old. My state is completely flat and before coming to live here I had only ever seen mountains on a vacation to Hawaii when I was seventeen. Because I know it's temporary, not a single day goes by that I take for granted the view of clouds obscuring the top of Mt. Liamigua, or being able to throw on a swimsuit and go snorkeling in the Caribbean Sea any time I wish. I love the view of the Atlantic from my apartment and the sound of coqui frogs at night. I really, truly do have great love for this country.

I think a huge part of the tension and divide between students and locals is the inability of some students to recognize their own privilege. Americans can have such an ethnocentric and myopic worldview that it blinds them to realizing when they're talking down to someone or saying something completely offensive. Or, in the case that I blogged about a few weeks ago, acting as a guest on a student visa being given permission to study in a foreign country and then blatantly and deliberately breaking the laws of that country that they don't consider important. Or how sometimes, when students talk about "the locals", it's said in a tone that suggests that they are aliens or a foreign species.

This is what bothers me. This is what I see happening on a daily basis and feel powerless to do anything about and simultaneously want to run up to people and apologize for being a white American because my countrymen make me look so ignorant by association. Which then makes me furious with myself, because one of the most common complaints among minorities when attending events or joining groups where they are underrepresented is that they are often made to feel like the "token X" who speaks for all members of that minority. So how dare I do the same thing with my own ethnicity?

It is frustrating, and there are no easy answers. But the sooner we recognize that no, not everyone starts out on equal footing, and that privilege exists and recognizing it is the first step to overcoming your own biases, the better.


  1. In regards to the first issues mentioned... I think I might be in the "have a beer" camp too.

    In regards to latter issues mentioned. I totally hear ya! It's not the same but I grew up in a very rich, very white community in the metro area I live it. Now, I live a very diverse, very modest community (which I like much more) ... as a result I sometimes want to hide where I grew up - as to not be lumped in with those privileged fools. I think it becomes obvious that I'm not that way once you get to know me, but initial reactions can be hard to avoid.

    1. Haha! My husband and I have the exact opposite problem. I grew up with a number of black friends, my high school had a large black and hispanic student population, I went to "black clubs" instead of yuppy bars, and then after I got married we moved to an inner city neighborhood outside of downtown Indianapolis where white folks were the minority. Then this past spring we moved to Spokane, WA and after a few days my husband finally turned to me and said exactly what I'd been thinking: "It's so... WHITE here! Everyone is just so white!"

  2. Julie,

    I'm also in the "let's have a beer" camp. No-one can even agree on if there's a problem, or what it is. There's an ill-defined line between "Conference Chaperones, Save me from the evil stupid men/people!" and "I'm a woman with a spine, I can handle myself thankyouverymuch." I believe nerds should learn to play well with others, but that would be like ordering the blind to see or the deaf to hear. And I'm a nerd.

    You can't reform UAs, but you are a "Beautiful American" and the natives will see that through the stereotype. I also try to be a BA when I'm abroad.