Privilege

Bennett Donine - Ecuador


May 25, 2016

  Paula S. Rothenberg begins her judiciously organized collection of essays found in her book “Beyond Borders” with her own words regarding the purpose of her work: to dismantle the American privilege and its costs Michael Shwalbe addresses in the Afterword. She returns to his thoughts at the close of her collection, which reinforces her intentions for readers to learn to think critically in order for meaningful decisions to be made in our shared futures.

Shwalbe’s afterword discusses both the skillful way others beat us with our own ignorance, which he calls American privilege, and how this luxury of obliviousness creates a vacuum of knowledge where things seem to be empty and unremarkable entitlements to members pertaining to the dominant group. Shwalbe includes this as yet another privilege where one does not have to think about the experiences of people in subordinate groups. Other American privileges he mentions involve the cheap goods made available for purchase by the ‘super exploited,’ the facile attitude toward war as a high-tech warfare affecting ‘distant strangers.’ and the freedom at home that involves repression and exploitation of those abroad. Reaching the powerful notion that ignorance about others is in reality ignorance about self, he provides hope in that these so called freedoms could be used to more fully fight these injustices.
Providing reason to Rothenberg’s initial object of her work, Shwalbe concludes that “We can’t simply decline privilege; we have to dismantle the system that gave it to us.” Confronting this privilege in the manner that I have through my Global Citizen Year has been a privilege within itself. I have learned, through my experience, Lang course materials, and Global Citizen Year sessions that privileges are complex and can take many forms. American Privilege in particular has been on my mind throughout my year and I have been working hard to dismantle it. This process starts with understanding one’s identity and going from there. My personal process of understanding my identity has been quite the whirlwind. This has been a year of firsts. My first time acknowledging my privilege, my first time away from my country, family and home, my first time away from my sisters for this amount of time, my first time feeling different. The instance by which I was confronted face to face with identities, on a much more personal and individualized experience, was the visit of my mother and three sisters.
On December 26th, I wrote this journal entry:

My family came to visit, very strange experience indeed. In fact, I am writing this after having spent just one day with them.

It has been my first time away for as long as it has been (four to five months or so) from the people I spent eighteen years of my existence with, my mother and three sisters.

For my first time ever, I have never felt more different. Especially growing up, so close in age and in appearances (which my impressive freckle accumulation and potato consumption has altered the appearance aspect in one-way or another).

Opening my Christmas stocking they brought to me and looking at all the contents inside made me feel like a different person, or rather the person I was before having left.

Their arrival has brought a sense of clarity, as well as duty. Having them look to me as an Ecuador expert, when in fact I have only been here four months and not quite yet proficient in Spanish, is making me feel quite overstated. Speaking Spanish, which in all honesty is hardly ever grammatically correct but just enough to get by on mutual understanding, and having them awe at my ‘skills’ made me all the more uncomfortable. I am beginning to realize that I have gained a heightened level of cultural sensitivity, as well a heightened awareness of my positionality throughout my time in Ecuador so far, which I blame this discomfort of mine on. In fact as I write this inside our shared hotel room and not responding to their questions, I am struck with “why is she be being so rude” ending with “why do I even bother”. I find myself passively aggressively not responding, on more occasions than one. As their bitchy reaction is similar, in part, to the questions they ask in English to those who only know Spanish, and the Spanish speaker’s following silence in response to the English. The resulting and agitated response on part of the English speaker, make it all the more easier to treat people like shit.
I am identifying my compulsive cringing at their attempts to order food and my insistence on doing it for them, as a result of obligation rather than what they have called unjustified embarrassment. I am now finding myself having a looming, dominant aversion to communicating in English in public spaces in Ecuador. Which adds to the obvious and unnecessary attention drawn towards us, a group of already apparent and slightly obnoxious gringas.

I could go on and on about their frightening pronunciation, that I too struggle with, or my own insecurities and at times lack of empathy of having been in their same position not too long ago. This is also apparent daily in Cotacachi, every time I hear one of the ExPats half-ass attempt to communicate the basics like “buenos dias,” “buenas tardes,” and “buenas noches.” To the point where I even find myself silent in times where I know speaking will just be offensive or rather in times where I would become that person, that arrogant gringo or ExPat that I myself have grown to resent, and where in certain situations I will always be.

The fact my family comes to Ecuador, stays in a Hilton hotel, an American hotel chain that is the same everywhere that it is located, the English language included, aids in the illusion of this place, where they don’t have to bother to understand the experiences different than their own. The atmosphere of this is hotel makes me feel as if I have entered America amidst an entirely different country and culture. This is not Ecuador. I can’t blame my family for prioritizing this place of stay. To be honest, before my experience here I would have found myself seeking the same.

I have had the opportunity to immerse myself into Ecuador over the course of the past four months, living with local families. From Quito, to a vastly different and rural city of Pimampiro to the very westernized Cotacachi, I have been exposed to the varying realities that can exist in such proximity to one another. Through these moves I have gained a heightened sense of cultural awareness and what is or isn’t culturally appropriate in the different realities I find myself interacting in. It is important to recognize that these realities exist though. Especially so, the contrasting communication styles that exist. In all reality we are all coming from different places. My family, the people who live here, and me. And it is in itself a beautiful thing to watch these intersect. Regardless of my initial and slightly immature underdeveloped reaction to my family’s visit.

So when I ask myself:

Why do I find myself averting such behavior? Where I find the gringos so utterly ignorant of their surroundings? (My family included). A state where I often find myself, and aim to correct? How do I get people to acknowledge their positionality without coming off as rude? Why is it even considered rude? When I am taking into account the perspectives and sensitivity of those on the other side of communication rather than just my own?
Communication, positionality, cultural sensitivity and awareness have been themes that follow me everywhere. Bringing with it a looming sense of discomfort when amidst my family “Who doesn’t know any better” (not knowing Spanish and what not) as well as a sense of duty to respect both.

Is this part of what it means to be a Global Citizen? To have made the effort to learn about the experiences of others?

A Google search will tell you “A global citizen is someone who identifies with being part of an emerging world community and whose actions contribute to building this community’s values and practices.” Being a ‘part of’ is allowing yourself to identify with the needs and sensitivities of all as well as recognizing the perceptions of your actions as well as the actions themselves (in whatever verbal/nonverbal form) build the values and practices that are sought on a global
level.

But in all honesty, I am struggling with how to understand the coexistence of the two on a meaningful personal level and how to maintain my communication with my family as well as the vastly different communication with my host family. I am also struggling with how to identify with both, one through which made me who I am and the other that will make me who I will be. I am still figuring that out. It will probably be even more unclear when I return to the U.S. in April.

Until then, chao chao.
This journal entry of mine examines an intersection of the privilege Shwalbe mentions, as well as the idea that “people are just doing their best” with the experiences and knowledge they have. After having completed my year, and returning to the U.S., understanding American privilege has improved my ability to understand the behaviors, opinions and lifestyles of those I find myself surrounded by. This brings a new light to consciousness about one’s everyday interactions specific to the context we find ourselves in. A concept, like American Privilege, is one that limits our ability of practicing humanity. Shwalbe keenly asserts in his afterword: “To be human is to be able to extend compassion to others to empathize with them and to reflect honestly on how they are affected by our actions”, a similar definition to that of a Global Citizen, a human across borders.

Bennett Donine