By Arah Iloabugichukwu
A few weeks ago I came across a Facebook post that stated the following: “Black Americans are the White people of the global Black community” — No doubt a play on a controversial thinkpiece discussing Black male privilege written by Damon Young of The Root. I thought to myself, if people can draw a correlation between the most privileged group in America and one of the most oppressed groups in America, surely this concept should be a cake walk. Right? Wrong.
Despite the poster’s back and forth banter with a few of the more curious commentators, the thread was riddled with accusations, assumptions, and insults. Every now and then, you’d see a non-American make a snide comment like, “The power of the blue passport,” before quickly shuffling back into the shadows. We all watched the simultaneous denial and display, not sure whether to be offended or humored by the severity of the backlash.
“Oh, so I’m supposed to feel bad cause (sic) people are starving in Africa?”
“Black people can’t benefit from white privilege. You wrong sis.”
“My ancestors fought and died for me to have these few privileges.”
“Have you ever heard of the civil rights movement? My grandma was hung from a tree, her and her friend. I’m supposed to feel bad about having privileges?”
“And yet y’all choose to come here where people died for those privileges. You can always go home.”
“Wish I would’ve known about these privileges while I was being racially profiled in the airport.”
“Black people are poor here in America too. Africans can’t blame us for that. They run their own countries.”
“You know me, you know I’ve tried to reach out to Africans in my community when I was starting my hair braiding business. None of them would sell hair to me or do business with me at all! So what more can the Black community do when y’all shut us out?”
“There is no global Black community, Africans don’t even accept us as African. I’m American, that’s my community.”
Sure, we’ve all heard some variation of these remarks before, but this time was different. It was difficult for me to accept that a group who’d become so well versed in decoding and deciphering the many faces and facets of privilege could be this blind to their own. And yet here I was, watching another dominant group demand that a minority group prove their oppression in order for it to be recognized. Was it a little more complex than that, I asked myself?
White Americans, some of whom would enthusiastically deny the existence of white privilege, seemed to fully embrace the privileges that come with being an American, earning a reputation for traveling abroad and taking full advantage of the global hierarchy that exists in their favor. I asked myself why this discussion with this particular group felt different and two things gradually became clear. The first being that a lot of Black Americans simply didn’t know what American privilege was. And second, the few who did were too consumed with their oppression to see how any privilege applied to them.
We see this all the time. A Black man debating the existence of male privilege because the oppression he experiences as a Black person is at the forefront of his lived experiences. A poor white woman denying her white privilege because the of oppression she experiences based on her socioeconomic status and gender. It’s hard to enjoy and accept privilege when you don’t feel like it adds anything of value to the quality of your life. But we must remember that experiencing a form of oppression does not absolve us of our privileges. There is nothing we can do to earn privilege and there’s nothing we can do to lose privilege. Granted, being oppressed undoubtedly changes the way a person experiences their privilege, but the privilege is still theirs.
My experiences growing up as a First Generation American have forced me to see this concept from more of a global perspective, fully recognizing that my citizenship and east coast accent automatically give me a leg up on my Nigerian born relatives. The reality is that many Black Americans never escape the clutches of American society, neither physically nor mentally, to fully realize the privileges their citizenship carries around the globe. For those of us struggling with this concept, I’ve compiled a list of the many ways through which we benefit from an “America First” mentality and actively participate in systems that oppress other Black people around the globe. (Please hold your privilege until the end.)
- For starters, American privilege is seeing your nation as “default” and cultural norms as “correct”– Americans are normal, everybody else is “different.” That includes you, Canadians.
- American privilege is not knowing much about other cultures around the world, and not being dismissed as ignorant because of it.
- American privilege is moving to another country and not having to earn your degree all over again because Western education and credentials are seen as superior.
- American privilege is having your country be better represented globally in the media. This includes written media, television, art, music, and movies. And when your country is represented in the media, you get an informed, nuanced portrayal.
- It’s an American privilege to have your country portrayed and viewed globally as advanced and modern as opposed to primitive and backwards.
- American privilege is not having people treat your county (let alone continent) as if it’s monolithic. People recognize that NYC and LA are vastly different parts of the US, but have a hard time accepting that Africa isn’t one big jungle/wetland.
- It’s an American privilege that most of your population is likely to have a strong, stable, relatively inexpensive connection to the Internet……which means that your country is better represented on social media and in digital activism.
- American privilege is when “global” platforms are more likely to acknowledge your national traditions, tragedies, celebrations and rituals, while those of other countries are ignored and/or marginalized.
- American privilege is the misconception that the English language is the global linguistic standard.
- American privilege is not needing to learn all that much about other countries. People from other countries, however, are forced to learn about your country as a means of survival.
- American privilege is having net neutrality be a hot button topic while a staggering 60% of the world is still fighting for Internet access.
- American privilege is making up only 4.3% of the global population but maintaining over 800 military bases in over 70 countries and U.S. Territories. Russia, Britain and France, on the other hand, operate approximately 30 combined.
- American privilege is the demand for elaborate pools in our apartment complexes, man-made lakes in the middle of our gated communities, seven dollar bottled water, and mile wide water themed amusement parks while the rest of the globe endures a devastating water and sanitation crisis.
- American privilege is being classified as an expatriate or an “expat” if you choose to relocate to a country other than that of your birth, while people of other countries who relocate to America receive tarnishing labels like migrant and/or immigrant.
- American privilege is asserting the belief that the consumption of meat and dairy is unethical despite the majority of the world suffering from chronic malnourishment. For many people around the world, if not for the consumption of meat and dairy, they would likely starve to death.
- American privilege is not knowing what it’s like to have war in your homeland.
- American privilege is expecting people in other countries to speak your language when you travel abroad.
- American privilege is believing everybody else wants to adopt the American way of life and therefore western interference and influence are sort of like gifts.
- American privilege is assuming everybody wants the USA to help them and that America is within her right to interfere in the affairs of other nations.
- American privilege is the idea that the West and it’s laws are the standard for morality, and any country not adhering to these standards is anti-humanity or anti-freedom.
- American privilege is traveling to places where Black indigenous populations are still being hidden, oppressed or ethnically cleansed and being treated well.
- American privilege is access to public benefits.
- American privilege is having the ability to travel and seek the protection of the U.S. government while abroad. (Think Li’Angelo Ball and the incident in China)
- American privilege is unrestricted international travel. You can thank your blue passport for that.
- American privilege is having a consumerist culture where the demand for cheap clothing pushes an entire fashion industry into what’s known as fast fashion. A global phenomenon where factory workers are vigorously overworked and subjected to dangerous conditions in order to keep up with Western demands. Who doesn’t love a good $2 tank top from Forever 21?
- American privilege is only knowing about global conflicts that directly impact your personal comforts… like increased taxes on avocado or higher gas prices. Meanwhile, there are 40 ongoing conflicts around the globe. Many of which the American government is directly involved.
My fellow Americans, the game has been rigged in our favor. This repressive system has been established solely for the purpose of expediting the development of the Western world and is being maintained for our benefit. You, being born in America, inherit a birthright that affords you opportunities that many others could only dream of. The term “American Dream” didn’t just pop out of thin air. It derived from very real, very tangible, very measurable discrepancies between life in the West and life around the rest of the world.
As people born into this imbalance, we have two obligations. The first being to recognize the imbalance, and the second being to address how we actively contribute to it. When we deny the existence of this imbalance altogether, we not only justify our privilege but maintain the system that would allow us to continue to benefit from it, making us the oppressors we loathe. Make no mistake, accepting privilege is a painful experience. To accept that you too have played a part in the oppression of others, even as you have cried out against oppression, is an unnerving, guilt-ridden experience.
Uncovering the hidden relationships of privilege means there’s no denying it and there’s no avoiding it. This is a particularly difficult revelation for American born Black people, who understandably struggle with being both a party to the oppressed and a party to the oppressors. Grappling with the idea that one can be complicit in the oppression of others while still fighting for their own liberation. But contrary to popular belief, we do not live on a secluded island and after almost 500 years in this country, we are as American as they come. Our actions affect the rest of the globe just as much as the actions of our fellow Americans. Neither our complexions nor our oppression make us exempt. After all, we know that there is no privilege without oppression and we know this firsthand.
The time to begin recognizing our place in the world as global citizens is now, not when the rest of the world finally crumbles under our weight. The bad news is it’s gonna take a hell of a lot of work on our end. The good news is everyone benefits in the end, including your privileged ass 🙂