White Privilege and Some Thoughts on How it Affects Me During My Time at I’lam
This will be the first installment in a series of monthly blog posts about my time living in Nazareth and working at I’lam. I’m nearing my two week marker in Nazareth and am still very new and naïve to the experience. I wasn’t sure if I should begin with such a difficult topic as my views are similarly naïve and subject to constant change and modification (hopefully). However, thinking through the ramifications of the privileges I have here is a useful mental exercise and will hopefully make me slightly better at recognizing faults in my behaviors. Bear with me then as I try to muddle my way through this.
Working for an NGO operating outside your home country is an incredible opportunity to learn from the community you live in and the people you are working with. It is also a fantastic opportunity to challenge narratives that are pummeled into you through a white dominated media industry, a white dominated school system, and in my case a very white community (I grew up in Maine). However, despite the best intentions of the human rights activist you are unlikely to ever escape the grips of those narratives. That is, I think, critical to recognize. The problems of privilege are compounded when you begin to think that you have evolved beyond them. It makes it very difficult to change your behaviors when they inevitably offend and cause harm to the community you are working within. This post is an attempt to identify a few ways in which white privilege affects my time here. It will certainly not be an exhaustive list, but rather just represent a few of the thoughts I’ve come up with in my short time here.
Maybe the most important self-reflection the foreign human rights worker can have is on the reasons why they chose that path. I grew up in Maine which battles it out with the likes of Vermont and Iowa for the moniker of least diverse state in the United States. My exposure to non-white countries came from books like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or through unnamed middle school teachers referring to Africa as a country, or through Christian charity adds calling on all good Christians to help the plight of the helpless [insert any non-white race] child. U.S and European intervention in [insert non-white country] was displayed as the benevolent hand lifting the helpless country out of destitution and corruption. I was certainly exposed to counter-narratives at home and when I went to college years later, but the image of the old white guy from that Christian charity organization ruffling the hair of a shirtless, bloated, and dirty child eventually seeps into you.
To some extent, no matter how deeply we repress it, those ads become formative experiences on our path to the foreign aid or human rights worker. This isn’t an easy thing to recognize, we prefer to think of ourselves as immune to those narratives because we learned about critical race theory in college. Notice, for example, how I switched to ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ in those last sentences. It’s much easier to talk about this in the context of a vague group of people then lay the charge at my own door. Recognizing that those narratives form a part of the reason why I chose this path is critical to limiting their influence on the actions I take while I’m here in Nazareth.
It’s not just that those narratives are racist, but they predispose you to look more negatively on solutions developed locally. When you think of yourself as going to help out the helpless community your mindset is that they couldn’t possibly have the capacity to respond to the challenges they face locally. This is a problem when you take leadership roles in aid efforts, but it’s also a problem when you are just volunteering. You stunt your ability to learn from a community when you let yourself be guided by narratives which tell you they are helpless. I certainly don’t have answers for how eradicate these influences, but my best bet is to be constantly mindful and conscious of their effect. This means periodic self-reflection based upon a knowledge that even if I don’t perceive the influence it is definitely there.
The second impact of privilege will be recognized by all friends who have been subjected to their friend returning from abroad with their newly found wisdom. Living within the community you are working in and learning from the people working in your office do not mean that you ‘understand’ the problems the community is facing. Here are just a few of the reasons why that is true. First, no matter how close to the ‘action’ I am I have in no way experienced the problems community members have faced. I am coming here as an affluent white male. This means I never really have to worry about my financials while I’m here. It also means that I will never know what it is to be discriminated on for being Arab. Or, in comparison to female human rights workers, be discriminated on or harassed on the basis of my gender. Seeing that discrimination is not even close to the same thing. Just about the worst thing that could happen to me while I’m here is that I would be denied a visa and sent home (all paid for by U.S tax dollars). So while I can learn enormously and challenge racist narratives, I do not understand what is going on. This is especially true because my entire experience here is built upon the knowledge that I will be leaving at the end of my internship. The ability and plan to exit means that I am not wholly invested in the situation, and am not faced with the mental exhaustion of knowing that the conditions Arab citizens in Israel face are my life in perpetuity.
It is incredibly demeaning to the experience of hardship that local community members have when you say that your months long stint there has taught you everything you need to know about the hardship they face. It devalues the everyday challenges they face by making them seem less significant then they are. Additionally it limits your ability to continue learning. I will strive to adopt a mindset that recognizes I am constantly naïve to the situation I am in. Throughout my time here I hope to learn and evolve, but I hope to never think I am completed in the learning process. There are of course infinitely more manifestations of white privilege that I will in some ways be complicit in while I’m here. These were just a few I thought were important to discuss while I am settling in.
On a more personal note I have been overwhelmed by the generosity I have seen here, from people in my office, to my host family, to the motorcyclist who pulled over to the side of the road to offer me his phone when I first arrived. I am beyond excited to live in this community and look forward to keeping on meeting new people and learn from them. I promise that future blog attempts will be more informative about my experience at Nazareth, and less of an intellectual self-pat on the back, so please continue reading next month.
I want to conclude with a note that I am always looking to learn and to be corrected. It is distinctly possible that within this post I have acted in ways that extend the narratives I was trying to challenge. In many ways I think that assuming an air of knowledge about how white privilege affects these communities probably reifies some of the harms that I just got finished writing about. For now though this has been a useful way for me to think through some of the challenges I will face while I am here. Please contact me with any comments you have.