Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Privilege without Borders

The author of this post does not know this person 
and would never sit on an armchair grave

I want to talk about white privilege. 
And I want to talk about it using this photo of a white woman. 
She is pictured sitting on the alter of a Chinese grave in a Thai-Chinese cemetery. The design of this particular tomb is known as an “armchair grave.” She is sitting on the alter of the grave, a place where flowers and incense would normally be. I would like to give her the benefit of the doubt, and say that perhaps she was confused and thought this grave was, literally, an armchair, because I don’t want to believe that a member of my own race, or possibly my own country, would be so crass, insensitive, and entitled, as to desecrate an alter for the deceased by rubbing her ass on it and posing for a photo.

As a graveyard photographer, I can find a lot wrong with this image. She is touching the grave, sitting on the grave, and improperly clothed in a sacred place (and for those cries of sexism I hear, men are also required to cover their shoulders and knees inside temples, cemeteries, and sacred spaces in most of Southeast Asia). I have the same nauseating reaction to this photo as I did when I saw tourists pose lovingly next to bullet-riddled tanks at the War Remnants Museum in Vietnam. I wrote about the disassociation that people have with time and place. A murder scene looks like a Hollywood set through the eyes of those living in comfort and safety. There is some amount of disassociation in this photo, but disassociation alone doesn’t send someone’s ass onto an alter.
Ignorance does.
Entitlement does.
Entitlement to be ignorant.

I have been traveling around SE Asia for six months and I have seen some shit. In general, it is my belief that most people are poorly behaved when on vacation. Didn’t we leave rules and responsibility behind at the office? Isn’t that why we took a holiday? But this excuse only holds so much weight, and its weight became much lighter when I watched a white woman smoke a cigarette at Angkor Wat, then rub the butt of the cigarette out on the “No Smoking” sign.

This behavior speaks of the entitlement to be ignorant. Something of this nature:
“I am tourist. I am a foreigner. I am paying for this experience. So I don’t have to learn your language, know your customs, follow your rules. And without apologizing, you have to forgive me.”

If you thought that the privilege and entitlement white people experience in America, or England, or Australia, gets left behind at the airport when they board flights to Bangkok or Bali, you are unfortunately mistaken. Maybe you thought that the experience of being a racial or ethnic minority in another country (such as, say, a white person in Thailand) would give them some perspective or empathy. It does for some, and not for others.

Of course we all know that being a minority in a foreign country is not the same as being a minority in your home country. What one learns, being a minority in a foreign country, is what it feels like to be unable to hide, and what it feels like to be treated differently (sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse) based on one’s physical appearance. Unless one grew up in, or lived for a long period of time in, a country with am institutional system of discrimination against foreigners or certain groups to which one belongs, one cannot compare their experience with say, that which POC experience in the United States.  Being targeted as a non-local and scammed or ripped off really sucks, but most white people in Asia can go home afterwards - to places where such incidents do not happen to them.
That, in and of itself, is a privilege.

Once when I was in Japan, I was walking through the red-light district of Tokyo wearing sexy clothing. I was on my way to a bar to meet friends, talking loudly on my cellphone in Japanese. I had not walked one block before I was stopped, and accosted, by two police officers. They demanded to see my identification (I had none), to know where I was from, what I was doing, where I was going, and whom I was meeting. You see, they thought I was a prostitute. Because I was white, because I was dressed sexy, because I was speaking Japanese, and because I was walking through the red light district at midnight. Honestly, when the police began questioning me, the first thought that came into my head was a quote from Wanda Sykes “Biggie Shorty” in Pootie Tang:
“Just cuz a girl like to dress fancy and stand on the street corner next to some hos, you automatically think she’s hookin?” Unfortunately I couldn’t translate this fast enough for the officers, but after some questioning they let me go, and to the bar I went, riled up and infuriated and all ready to claim that I was a victim of discrimination.

“This would have never happened in America!” I cried.

I used to think that statement showed how discriminatory Japan was, but in fact, it only showed how privileged and entitled I was. This – being accosted by the cops for no reason – who have never happened to me in America because I am a white woman. This does, however, happen all the time in America - to women of color.

I would argue that white people cannot escape white privilege anywhere on this planet, because white privilege is not defined by borders. It is not merely an institution that is policed by one country’s regime. It is internal. It is within us. The sense of entitlement is something we carry in our suitcases and in our minds and it follows us to every corner of the globe. Even when we whites are the minority in a foreign country we expect to be treated with fairness, at equal level with local people. This is apparent in our  surprise at being ripped off by street vendors or accosted by police. Even when we whites are guests and visitors in a foreign country we expect to be exempt from the customs and norms. This is apparent in our flagrant disregard for rules. Trespassing, smoking, littering, loitering, molesting, and vandalizing. I have seen it all, and I am not innocent. I did not stop it. I enabled it. I enabled it by being there and doing nothing about it. 

Some people might argue with me, say that this isn’t about white privilege and that some people are just poorly behaved, that’s all. Sure, we can find examples of ill-behaved people of all backgrounds. That’s true. But what makes white privilege real is not that some white people behave badly, it’s why they behave badly.
To the white guy who I caught writing “fuck” on the walls of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum:  “What made you think you could, and did, get away with that?”

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