A PCV on Privilege

26 May

One of the blessings/curses of living in the big city of Dakar is relatively consistent access to the internet, meaning relatively constant access to the media, leading to me read and see a lot more than I’d like to see sometimes. Recently a string stories and articles have popped up on news feeds concerning things such as “white privilege” and “male privilege,” and now that I’ve finally had the chance to digest my thoughts and feelings about my Peace Corps service, I felt that I wanted to share a little perspective on this, you know, as a white privileged male.

I am white, and I’m a male living in West Africa. Needless to say, in this specific environment, I am somewhat of a minority. People make black and white assumptions about my inherent wealth, my culture and my upbringing. Children shout “toubab” (white/western person) at me on the streets, and I get heckled and hassled in various ways that I probably wouldn’t if I looked and acted like a Senegalese person. Walking out my front door every morning, I am the perpetual outsider, no matter what I do, no matter how many people I greet and talk to; I will never quite fit in here, especially in a huge metropolitan area like Dakar.

(Let me just be clear: this, just like everything else, is not a monolith. There are plenty of warm, welcoming and incredible Senegalese people, these issues only stem from the loud and unavoidable heckler minority that exists anywhere you are in the world)

When I first experienced these things, I thought it gave me perspective on what it must feel like to be part of a marginalized population, to be a woman, to be a POC, to be LGBTQ in the United States.

I was only half right though. I was now an outsider, with no hope of blending in, but at the end of the day this disconnect I felt was something I chose. I chose to serve in the Peace Corps, I chose to come to West Africa, and I chose to live in these communities. The fact of the matter is that when I move back home to the US, these problems, these frustrations, they all go away, disappear into the milieu. When it comes down to it: I’m still the lucky one, I have a choice in the matter, I get to escape.

That’s not the experience that many of my friends and colleagues will share.

When I go home, the unwanted attention and random grabbing and touching (which has been on the rise of late…) I receive will more or less disappear. If I was a woman, moving back to the states might mean a decrease in the most overt and blatant forms of sexism and this type of unwanted attention, but I wouldn’t escape it completely. A female PCV can move back to the US but will still be objectified, still groped in public, still cat-called by drunkards and lesser men, and still paid less than a man for the same work.

When I go home, people will stop judging my socioeconomic status, my culture, perceived personality and beliefs based upon the color of my skin. If I was a POC returning back to the gold old US of A, people would continue to judge me, treat me differently than everyone else because of the color of my skin. Judge me according to some monolith popular culture has engrained in their psyches instead of who I actually am as a person.

When I go home, people will stop overtly judging me for who I am as a person, stop judging me against a singularity of my culture they’ve seen and decide before I even open my mouth that I’m a terrible person. If I was a member of the LGBTQ community, I wouldn’t have such luck. I’d be welcomed back into a country still so full of bigots, of people who think of me a lesser person because they’re under the false impression that my sexuality somehow threatens their way of life, that I would still fear for my safety on certain street corners across the country.

I am privileged, if for no other reason than the fact that I will never have to experience those injustices in my own home.

No one will cat call me.

No one will become noticeably disturbed, angry or skittish for no reason when I approach them.

No one will direct their rage against me for merely being who I am.

I will always be privileged because of these things, and I accept that. I have a leg up, I have an easier time than all those other groups of people will ever have, and if they want to tell me that, then that’s their prerogative. I will never be able to fully empathize with those injustices or understand those struggles because I will never have to endure them.

It’s also not my place to judge people for how they handle those injustices, how they cope with those pains, how they rationalize them to themselves.

Instead, it’s only my place to acknowledge them, and to speak out against those injustices when I see them, something I didn’t do much of before I came here, before I became the outsider and realized just how much that one person in a crowd standing up for you can mean, how it can turn your entire day around. But just like the Senegalese who restore my faith in humanity when they come to my side in those times of conflict, when people harass me, I need to be that person who stands up when he sees this conflict, and prove that not everyone is like that, not through empty words and lip service but through actions.

I, just like everyone else, was born this way. And I consider myself lucky and privileged that the only burden I bear from that is being self-aware enough to accept it, and to do everything in my power to prevent that system from pesisting.

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