Privilege always comes at somebody else’s expense
Nanjala Nyabola writes about seeing a white boss belittle a Haitian teacher — “I hate it because I sense that my empowerment as a foreign woman is expected to come at the cost of this man’s dignity. He cannot stand at full metaphorical height: he must slouch a little forward in order to make everyone just a little more comfortable. Privilege like this always comes at somebody else’s expense.”
I think about this often. What’s the harm of white privilege? What’s the harm in white people working in NGOs? What’s the harm in white people writing a Sri Lankan cookbook? In the abstract it seems harmless, but we don’t live in the abstract do we? Nyabola made me really think about who gets the bill. In the real world of unreal borders, white privilege is keeping billions of us down.
I won’t discuss the abstract. Here’s a photograph.
A Recipe For White Privilege
This is a white girl in a Sri Lankan market, under passport apartheid. She can learn some of the food on vacation, fly back to London, and sell it. Meanwhile the brown people in this photograph cannot even move.
What if the brown lady next to Dobbs also wants to sell hoppers at the Frith Market stall? She’ll get fucking deported or worse. If she ever got past the visa wall (she can’t) she’d face the great white wall of publishing. Meanwhile a random white girl can fly in, read a few cookbooks, and walk right into a book deal.
This is the price of white privilege. Her privilege comes at the expense of everyone else in that photograph. It comes at the expense of billions of people.
An Apartheid World
This is where we live. We live in a world of passport apartheid where money and whiteness can move, but ordinary human beings cannot. Where things do not exist until white people discover them, and cannot be understood unless white people explain. Where everything must be commodified in the service of whiteness, by whiteness, with just enough exceptions (like me) to make this continued colonialism invisible.
Black and brown people can serve food to tourists, and then those tourist will write cookbooks about it. We can keep beach houses for white people, who will then rent them out to other white people on AirBnB. These activities on their own are not necessarily bad, but what is downright evil is that it doesn’t go both ways. Hospitality industry my ass, it’s colonialism with tips.
We CANNOT produce mangled recipes from our sojourns in England because we can’t just up and go there, we have to beg and grovel for visas. We CANNOT work an ordinary job that lets us buy a villa, because we are kept away from those labor markets by violent borders. Even if we do get through these hurdles and become good immigrants, this is never ours by right. ‘Good’ migrants (like me, once) just become the brown wallpaper on white supremacy.
This is the apartheid world. We are sold separate but equal, as in we all have some place to call home, but why is the white world so much bigger? Why are they allowed to be tourists, expats, travel influencers, and digital nomads, whereas we’re part of an immigration ‘problem’ or hopeless refugees. Not fucking equal is it? We literally get drowned if we step over the line whereas white people are habitual line-steppers.
Even Our Suffering Is Yours
Once I ended up in a giant house in Colombo, so big you could play cricket in the living room. The fridge was stocked with imported beer. Turned out the place was rented for the head of a German NGO, who didn’t even live there. I was shocked.
You could have housed a dozen Sri Lankan families there, or just spent the rent money on them. Instead it was kept empty for a white person. Are these people really helping us? It seemed like they were helping themselves.
These NGOs, this ‘aid’, they take the problem of inequality and make white jobs out of it, but never give up any privileges. Certainly not their creature comforts, but absolutely not the idea that the people they ‘serve’ might have as equal rights as them. They see it as absolutely right that they can come and live comfortably in ‘troubled’ places around the world, but never question why the people around them can’t go the other way.
"There's really no such thing as the 'voiceless'. There are only the deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard", says Arundhati Roy.
For example, this is some charity called Humanity United commenting on the deaths of Vietnamese people trying to migrate to the UK:
First, we need to address the root causes of why people embark on this dangerous journey in the first place. Driven by a desire for economic and social opportunities they believe are unattainable in their home provinces in central Vietnam, people are willing to pay £30,000 or more to smugglers for a “safe route” to the UK. Awareness-raising campaigns are not enough to dispel the myth of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The campaigns need to be accompanied by programmes that provide opportunities for a better life in Vietnam, such as vocational training and job placements.
The answer of this NGO is not what those Vietnamese people wanted, which was to safely come to the UK. That’s impossible. Instead the dumb migrants must be educated out of their delusions of free movement, and given better vocational training on the capitalist plantation. This NGO never questions passport apartheid. They just want to make white supremacy more comfortable for the oppressed.
United Humanity my ass. This is white power. They’re not speaking up for the voiceless, they’re silencing them.
Even our suffering must be addressed in ways that make white people feel comfortable, or even good. White people can visit Vietnam or set up hotels there, that’s great, they’re helping the locals. But NGOs must earnestly raise awareness that people the Global South are certainly not the same. We have to watch them cruising around in big jeeps, patiently teaching us our place. Even our suffering must be exploited by them.
The Cost Of Privilege
This is the cost of privilege. These cooks and consultants may be individually well-meaning, but they are bastards in the aggregate. They are the pedicured foot of white privilege, snug in the steel boot of white supremacy and capitalist exploitation. Billions of equally free human beings are ground down beneath their heels.
This is why I say fuck your tourism, and your development, and your cookbooks. We don’t want development under your conditions, we don’t want our culture and food regurgitated through your throats. We want the world. We have the God-given right to move, denied only through this accursed colonialism without end.
White people started by stealing our goods directly, but then they figured out they could set up invisible borders and steal from far away. They could exploit our labor, own our land, and cherry-pick the colonial subjects they wanted to let in to serve them at home. We call this capitalism, but where’s the free market? Where’s the free movement of labor? It’s just colonialism by air, and now this endless exploitation is melting the very Earth.
As Nyabola says, privilege always comes at somebody else’s expense. White privilege is the literal fruit of exploitation, and it’s not innocuous, it’s not well-meaning, it’s not ‘just writing’ or ‘just trying to help’. White privilege is theft, from billions of people, and from every future generation on Earth. We’re done with white people discovering cultures and saving the world. You’re about to discover one simple fact. The world is ours.
Nanjala Nyabola’s book Travelling While Black is a travel book for the world. Not just the Eat/Pray/Love dipshits benefitting from Passport Apartheid. Read it.