Monday, January 23, 2012

A few more thoughts on privilege

I received some verbal criticism from Shelley for my thoughts on a recent post We might need their help more than they need ours, particularly centred on privilege and romanticising people that I have had no contact with. I want to elaborate a little bit on these criticisms; they are important to think about.

Haiti is economically the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, likely because of various political reasons that I do not claim to fully know or understand. To add salt to these obvious wounds, the 12 January 2010 earthquake demolished entire inhabited areas of Haiti, with many building structures collapsing because of poor building codes. It is clear when you see pictures that there was intense social devastation caused by the earthquake. But I don't think the pictures are telling the whole story. 

Over the past few years, I have been listening to stories about the recovery efforts underway in Haiti, stories about art and cultural preservation, about people from the US giving up their lives here to lend their hands and their hearts to the Haitians. In each of the stories that I have listened to, in each interview with a Haitian, I have come away time and again with the sense that the resiliency of many Haitians allows them to find a silver lining to most any situation. These stories have made me consider moving to Haiti, at least for a while, to see and to understand, if possible, what this is all about.

However, I was criticised for two reasons. Firstly, I was told that unless I navigated my time with the Haitians carefully, I would be taking advantage of them because of my privilege. In many historical cases of anthropological studies of underprivileged, disenfranchised people, the studied group has been taken advantage of, particularly because the studies in no way empower the group of people to change the situation they are in. Secondly, I was told that I don't know the Haitians, and that making blanket statements about their optimism or whatever else is dangerous, romantic, and just plain wrong.

I must admit that my intentions have been to understand a different culture, not for some sort of intellectual gratification or "to find myself", but rather to relay messages, customs, and worldviews that allow the optimism and hope that I hear from the stories. Honestly, it is difficult not to be in awe of the people that I have listened to, especially because I imagine that their compassion and empathy, if allowed to unfold in other contexts, can allow a markedly different world, one much less materialistic and ecologically degrading. I recognise at the same time that Haiti has staggering ecological problems, particularly those of deforestation and soil erosion, because of the demand for wood as fuel, degrading agricultural practices, and population growth.

How to navigate the privilege that even allows me to go to Haiti is challenging, and I don't think I could be able to chart a path without a complete immersion. Furthermore, it is important to be constantly aware that because of privilege, one can extricate oneself from most any situation, consequently leaving the underprivileged high and dry in their situation.

I think these issues are essential to think about when engaging in international work, particularly that of the (unfortunately) dominant "sustainable development."

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