How many of you saw the title of this post and cringed a little? It’s all right to admit it, even if you’re even still silently hoping I won’t offend your sensibilities in the following paragraphs. But whether you are what America calls ‘white’ or ‘of color,’ whether you are comfortable, lavishly decorated in excess or struggle to make ends meet, this blog post won’t spare you in its scrutiny. Therefore, dear reader, tighten your belt and polish your silver spoon.
Privilege is a very difficult thing to talk about in America. We skate around it like well-trained ice dancers, performing impressive feats of denial all with our eyes tightly shut. Those of us that are willing to admit our privilege do it through gritted teeth and with an apologetic air. To escape our guilt some of us read avidly and learn niche phrases so that we can articulate injustice in more accurate euphemisms. Some of us donate to charity and some of us make sure we have a nice diverse group of friends and colleagues. Some of us join the Peace Corps. But however you deal (or not) with having privilege, there is no avoiding that America’s social ladder divides the have’s and the have-not’s largely by race. (And I beg you, don’t point out the cases of exceptionalism to me, I know we have a black president).
Because of how firmly race grips our economic, social, political and cultural systems in America, it has always been a central part of Americans’ identities, and if you don’t think that’s true, try having your race denied you by coming to Burkina Faso. Talking to Burkinabe at the village level, you will often find race boiled down to two, at most three, categories. That’s right, my Apache-Irish-Latino-Sephardic-Euro-Carribbean friend. For most Burkinabe, there are blacks (les noires) which is synonymous with Africans, and whites (les blanches), which is everyone else with the sometimes exception of anyone hailing from Asia. So, imagine my dismay when, upon coming to Solenzo, people started calling me la blanche or white woman.
I don’t need to tell most of you that my hair is kinky and my eyes so dark that you can’t see my pupils, or that I’ve got ‘Jackson 5 nostrils.’ In America, I am black, bi-racial if you want to get technical, and in America, being black means a whole mess of things. It means I had to ask my mom at the tender age of 5 why none of the Barbies in the commercials looked like me. It means I occasionally got followed in stores. It means I had to deal with my white friends asking me why I didn’t speak in Ebonics or identify with hop-hop culture, and meant choosing sides on the playground because even in the fourth grade, kids understood that American society is a study in tribalism. I also don’t need to tell most of you that despite being at the bottom of the racial totem poll, I enjoy a life style that many black Americans don’t have access to. Being adopted, I grew up in a white family and have reaped many of the privileges that come with that. I am caught in that awkward space between privilege and social handicap.
I’ve spent a good chunk of the last 4 years of my life intellectualizing my race and tying all of its intricacies into a carefully constructed web of thought and knowledge. Burkina Faso took that web from me and neatly crushed it into a very simple little answer: You’re white. And it isn’t because of the color of my skin, which is well within the melanin-rich spectrum of Burkina Faso, it’s because of my privilege. Suddenly I get to enjoy all the privileges of being white. Here, that means something more exaggerated than it means in America. In fact, it’s as though I’ve been transported back to the America of the 1960’s when we were still perfectly comfortable admitting that we believe being white means you deserved better treatment. I get put on the bus first sometimes, no matter where my name is on the list. I get to skip everyone in line and take the best seat at a show because I’m the only ‘white’ person. I get forgiven for things that Burkinabe would not be forgiven for.
However, by the same token, sometimes it means getting singled out in not so positive ways. My difference attracts attention that prompts random men to pursue me in the streets and people to stare at me in public or call out Tubabu (foreigner), as though just to remind me I am not one of them. Recently I was stopped for a traffic violation and made to pay a large sum of money that it was difficult for me to spare, and it was clear to me at the big intersection with over 100 Burkinabe as witnesses that the main motivation for the stop was for the traffic cops to make a scene.
Additionally, as an American I am seen as someone of promise who can provide and who has things to give away. As far as Americans go, Peace Corps volunteers tend to be young, idealistic, liberal and not expressly heavy on cash flow. When I first understood the way the Burkinabe considered me, I resisted it firmly, saying that in America, I didn’t have any money or outlandish privileges, then launching into a long soapbox speech about racism and our broken higher education system. It took about a dozen pairs of glazed over Burkinabe eyes for me to realize that, though my privilege in America is relative, here it is explosively relative. So relative that that complex and colorful map of social hierarchy we’ve constructed in America makes absolutely no sense to your typical Burkinabe. Having the kinds of rights, access to resources and security that most Americans enjoy, whether black or white or anything in between, is still far ahead of what most people here can even dream of. From that great a distance, the picture of race that we have in America looses its resolution. I am white and I am one of the have’s, just like the rest of the Western world.
Being in Burkina Faso, my sense of what is fair has been twisted and turned on its head. It isn’t fair that 1 in 10 black men will end up in prison in America, or that anything that comes in ‘nude’ doesn’t match my skin tone. It isn’t fair that people of color are profiled and denied access to basic rights, and that black children are treated differently in the classroom, more likely to be shot and less likely to attend schools with enough funding to support them. It isn’t fair that little black girls grow up hating their hair, or that white people run our government. But the very fact that I have this idea of fairness comes from an inherent privilege that, until I came here, I forgot I had. I am completely and utterly entitled to think I deserve better from the world despite everything I already have, swaddled in the privilege that American society has purchased with that familiar currency of other peoples’ suffering. It is my responsibility to understand that, because when it comes to layers of privilege, this is the highest one.