Coping With Your “Privileged” Status

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The ability to ‘holiday’ while doing my research presented me with such stark contrasts: I’d see complete abject poverty one day and then be among the world’s most elite, on a Tanzanian safari, or climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, the next. But we HAVE to grapple with these issues, not ignore them. And to me, consciously choosing tourism companies that I knew would help the local economy was a big factor!

So here you’ve stumbled upon my website and you’ve noticed that my blog post today contains a pretty presumptuous title.  By using the present continuous form of the verb “to cope” I am assuming that you, reader, are coping somehow with a privileged status.  Thus, I’m assuming that you do have some form of privilege.

Not I, you might bequeath.  And yet, here you are, reading these words, when 8% of men and 13% of women worldwide are illiterate (UNESCO).  Here you are, somehow accessing the internet to get on my webpage when 23% of the developed world and 69% of the developing world have no access to the internet (internet world stats).  In a world where it seems like every single person is on the world wide web…that it’s almost ludicrous to imagine getting a job or having a future with ZERO internet skills…imagine the 23 and 69 percentiles without access!

So here’s a truth:  if you take your literate, internet-possessing self, pack a suitcase with some clothes you somehow afforded to purchase, and get on a plane that cost more than the annual income of many (over 2 billion people live on less than $2/day, according to the World Bank)…you are among the world’s privileged.  You might not be rich.  You might still be struggling.  But especially if you travel to a disadvantaged community or country, you are going to be perceived as being privileged.  And you’re going to feel it.

And coping with being privileged can be mighty difficult!

There’s this term used in cultural anthropology called going native.  The concept depicts a person who enters into a different culture and, after time, tries to become a part of that culture, in every way.  This is not simply respecting the culture or getting to know the culture.  This is starting to almost envision yourself as one with the culture – sharing the same injustices, pain, and cultural values, so much so that you no longer relate to yourself as an outsider.

Anthropology students learn about this concept when discussing fieldwork.  If a researcher goes native, it can have severe consequences for the outcome of their research because it jeopardizes their ability to observe without bias.  And in anthropology, where fieldwork is often in the form of ethnography which takes months, if not years, to complete, the danger of going native is higher because the researcher is in the community for such a long period of time.

But watching travellers, student interns, and even myself, go in and out of disadvantaged communities for over a decade, there is something I’ve observed:  many times we try to go native as a way of coping with our privileged status.  We try to either hide, forget about, or make excuses for our background because we are embarrassed or unsure of how to deal with our privileged status.

We don’t know how to cope with being privileged, so we pretend it doesn’t exist.

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This is me in the Serengeti where Walt Disney got its inspiration for Pride Rock (The Lion King). My skin always experiences a lot of problems when I’m in Africa for a longer period of time. I like to think it’s God’s way of keeping me humble: is bad skin really the worst thing that anyone could complain about?!

But it does.  And as much as it’s a difficult reality with which to contend, in my experience it’s much healthier to recognize your privilege and deal with it head-on, rather than ignoring it altogether.

When I was in Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia conducting my PhD field research I was 26 years old.  In countries where less than half of children end up in secondary school, here I was, wandering around the education sector, getting information about lack of access to school.  My research wasn’t using deception, meaning that I had to disclose exactly who I was and what I was studying.  Which meant I received many comments, looks, and questions about how an unmarried woman in her twenties could possibly be working towards a doctorate.

Ten months of conducting my own research through foreign lands and this was probably the hardest thing for me – coping with my privilege head-on.  But eventually I learned the secret that is helpful in the majority of these privilege situations.  Confront it head-on.  And be honest.

Yes, but in Canada it is very normal for people to finish all of their education at a very young age.

I see that in Malawi people do their PhDs in their 50s.  In Canada, people often do it when their younger, and then start looking for a university job.

Recognize and speak to the differences in a way that doesn’t look down on either situation, but simply states the facts.

Three examples:

  1. I don’t get why I should act so privileged and take my ______ medication/get ____ immunization when people here get _____ all the time and seem to be fine with it.  I am not a medical expert, so obviously talk to your doctor and take his/her advice.  However, do either: take your medication in private or, if you’re unable to do so, explain that you come from a country where _____ doesn’t exist, so you have absolutely no immunity built up against it.
  2. It seems so upper class to be buying bottled water when everyone around me is drinking from the tap.  I don’t want to seem rude or special.  If the water is going to potentially make you ill, why take the chances of cutting short your time in this country?  Explain that the water in your country is different so this water makes your stomach upset.  If they came to your country, maybe they’d experience the same.
  3. I feel safer taking a plane across the country, and I can afford the fare, but it seems so bourgeois to not take the local bus.  I’ve been here too.  But sadly road incidents are higher and the airplane is safer.  Having the money to afford the plane fare already means you’re privileged…how does taking the bus change that reality?  

It can be difficult to contend with your privileged status, but being open and honest about the situation, without belittling the other person or culture, can be a great way to ease your feelings of discomfort without bringing harm.  More than anything, recognizing what you can afford that others can’t might help you empathize with those less privileged than you.  In a world where sometimes we complain about the most mundane of matters (see the unfortunately-named first world problems hashtag on Twitter), sometimes a little perspective can do us a lot of good!

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