Tuesday, January 19, 2010

blithely live relatively comfortable lives while others are suffering

Here's something that I was thinking about today:

What is it that allows white people to blithely enjoy comfortable lives, while others lead less enjoyable lives just because they weren't lucky enough to be born white? How can we white people so easily ignore that difference?

"White privilege" describes advantages that are afforded to white people simply because they're white. And the thing about privilege is, it only works when others don't have it. I think that's another way of putting what it is that those of us who are white too easily ignore.

I think one explanation for this callousness is that in a way, whiteness does something that having extra money also does -- it insulates people. Both can wrap people in a sort of cozy, protective bubble, and desensitize them to the feelings and sufferings of those outside the bubble. I know my whiteness has done that to me. And I think that the money my nation has (including that which it has long been expropriating from places like Haiti), and thus the money that I have and can earn as an average, white citizen of that nation, has done that to me too.

Of course, real money is necessary to fully enjoy the privileges of whiteness. Even if you're white, having very little money can mean that life is far less than comfortable and enjoyable. Yes, being white can make it easier to obtain real money, but that doesn't mean that all white people have enough money to lead fun and comfortable lives, just because they're white. And yet, simply because of their race, they often have less trouble doing so than those who aren't white. And more to the point, they can easily ignore the problems of those who, simply because they're not white, have more trouble doing so.

Such thoughts, about our callousness towards those less fortunate than ourselves, were inspired for me yesterday by hearing about a luxury cruise ship that was headed for Haiti when the earthquake struck. The ship's owners decided to go ahead with a planned beach landing, including all the attendant festivities, despite the nearness of the beach to the devastation and suffering in Haiti.

What kind of monstrosity is this? And what kind of monster have I become, if I refuse to recognize and struggle with parallels in this story to my own life?

Somehow, this story feels like an allegory for my privileged existence. And focusing on the passengers who stayed on the ship and refused to take part in the sun and fun, or on the crew's limited Haiti relief efforts, and then saying, "Well yes, that's what I would do too," seems too easy.

As the Guardian reports,

Sixty miles from Haiti's devastated earthquake zone, luxury liners dock at private beaches where passengers enjoy jetski rides, parasailing and rum cocktails delivered to their hammocks.

The 4,370-berth Independence of the Seas, owned by Royal Caribbean International, disembarked at the heavily guarded resort of Labadee on the north coast on Friday; a second cruise ship, the 3,100-passenger Navigator of the Seas is due to dock.

The Florida cruise company leases a picturesque wooded peninsula and its five pristine beaches from the government for passengers to "cut loose" with watersports, barbecues, and shopping for trinkets at a craft market before returning on board before dusk. Safety is guaranteed by armed guards at the gate.

The decision to go ahead with the visit has divided passengers. The ships carry some food aid, and the cruise line has pledged to donate all proceeds from the visit to help stricken Haitians. But many passengers will stay aboard when they dock; one said he was "sickened".

"I just can't see myself sunning on the beach, playing in the water, eating a barbecue, and enjoying a cocktail while [in Port-au-Prince] there are tens of thousands of dead people being piled up on the streets, with the survivors stunned and looking for food and water," one passenger wrote on the Cruise Critic internet forum.

"It was hard enough to sit and eat a picnic lunch at Labadee before the quake, knowing how many Haitians were starving," said another. "I can't imagine having to choke down a burger there now."

Some booked on ships scheduled to stop at Labadee are afraid that desperate people might breach the resort's 12ft high fences to get food and drink, but others seemed determined to enjoy their holiday. "I'll be there on Tuesday and I plan on enjoying my zip line excursion as well as the time on the beach," said one.

The company said the question of whether to "deliver a vacation experience so close to the epicentre of an earthquake" had been subject to considerable internal debate before it decided to include Haiti in its itineraries for the coming weeks.

"In the end, Labadee is critical to Haiti's recovery; hundreds of people rely on Labadee for their livelihood," said John Weis, vice-president. "In our conversations with the UN special envoy of the government of Haiti, Leslie Voltaire, he notes that Haiti will benefit from the revenues that are generated from each call. . .

"We also have tremendous opportunities to use our ships as transport vessels for relief supplies and personnel to Haiti. Simply put, we cannot abandon Haiti now that they need us most."

"Friday's call in Labadee went well," said Royal Caribbean. "Everything was open, as usual. The guests were very happy to hear that 100% of the proceeds from the call at Labadee would be donated to the relief effort."

Forty pallets of rice, beans, powdered milk, water, and canned foods were delivered on Friday, and a further 80 are due and 16 on two subsequent ships. When supplies arrive in Labadee, they are distributed by Food for the Poor, a longtime partner of Royal Caribbean in Haiti.

Royal Caribbean has also pledged $1m to the relief effort and will spend part of that helping 200 Haitian crew members.

The company recently spent $55m updating Labadee. It employs 230 Haitians and the firm estimates 300 more benefit from the market. The development has been regarded as a beacon of private investment in Haiti; Bill Clinton visited in October. Some Haitians have decried the leasing of the peninsula as effective privatisation of part of the republic's coastline.


  1. Hmm. I suppose I'm meant to be focusing on the people who disembarked to party on the beach, but... first reaction?
    What's up with being so "sickened" by the callousness that you... stay on the ship?

    Not only would I get my ass over to the nearest what-can-I-do-to-help station, if they could put me to use, I'd stay there. For the rest of my scheduled vacation or whatever. [I find myself tempted to add "if I could afford it" so as not to seem "classist." For all I know, some of these passengers saved for 10 years to afford the trip, right? But I don't know. If that's not a luxury, I don't know what is. By definition, you can "afford" to give it away.]

    And this: "It was hard enough to sit and eat a picnic lunch at Labadee before the quake, knowing how many Haitians were starving... I can't imagine having to choke down a burger there now," is just all kinds of problematic. I guess they forced down the lunch the first time because it was for the greater good (ie: tourism = philanthropy)?

  2. Another great example of this would be James Cameron's acceptance speech at the Golden Globes after he won for best film.


    He goes on about how they have the best jobs EVER and how they should all give themselves a round of applause! How, if visiting a world several thousands of light years away is what it takes to feel connected here on Earth then that's movie making magic!

    All the while wearing a red ribbon for Haiti. It left a very bad after taste for several

  3. "Some booked on ships scheduled to stop at Labadee are afraid that desperate people might breach the resort's 12ft high fences to get food and drink, but others seemed determined to enjoy their holiday. "I'll be there on Tuesday and I plan on enjoying my zip line excursion as well as the time on the beach," said one."

    There is nothing left to say...

  4. WTF Why not cancel the excursions and donate money or manpower instead? Why tie the money to a number of callous trips to Labadee? They employ 230 Haitians... who are probably having a hard time making it to work today. "300 more benefit from the market" so we're talking about 530 people benefitting from this while millions upon millions don't. Makes perfect sense. Whatever helps them sleep at night.

    Soon the Time Life or National Geographic photographers will be there to get their latest cover or prize-winning shot. Taking pictures of dying people or suffering mothers is so awesome!

    A while back on the 'net there was a picture that was widely circulated - a Pulitzer prize-winning photo of a tiny Sudanese girl, emaciated, unable to drag himself any longer to a feeding center while a vulture sat waiting for her imminent death...and the photographer snaps a photo and it wins money and recognition. Did the photgrapher help her to the feeding center she was looking for? No. He scares away the vulture and she somehow manages to pick up and go on...alone. I read that he sat down, "talked to God," cried and thought about his daughter. Talk about callousness and being in your own protective bubble. And not seeing PoC as human. He couldn't even imagine seeing that child as someone's daughter. The same year his photo won the Pulitzer he killed himself.

    WP constantly are looking at other people's tragedies and compartmentalizing them. They happen to other people, and if something atrocious happens here and to other WP, well they blame the forces of nature and find ways to build stronger houses higher up. But if it happens to PoC, they blame the PoC. They blame them for being poor, for living in certain places in the world, for being on God's apparent epic shit-list. Never once does it cross their minds that a lot of these places are the way they are because of WP.

  5. Don't forget that with that "white privilage" we have to prove our worth. We don't get jobs and aid just because of our skin color.

  6. "Here's something that I was thinking about today:

    What is it that allows white people to blithely enjoy comfortable lives, while others lead less enjoyable lives just because they weren't lucky enough to be born white? How can we white people so easily ignore that difference?"

    Please.. I'm hoping I misunderstood the segment. I'm wondering if all whites feel this way? That they wake up in the morning, thanking their lucky stars they were "lucky enough" to be born white? Or was this statement meant in another way. Please elaborate.

  7. @ mgibson17

    Like all the threads here, I'm assuming that the implied title is "stuff [some] white people do."

    Or, in other words, not all of us are heartless jackasses. Just most of us.

    But I actually disagree with the premise of the statement you quoted. White people who have this attitude (blithely live comfortably...) don't believe their lives are great because they're white, they believe their lives are great because they've worked so hard and deserve all the good things.

    Oh. And that's why they can do it. Because they feel like they've "earned" it somehow.

    The expression, I believe, is "born on third and thought he hit a triple."

  8. Willow said...
    "Oh. And that's why they can do it. Because they feel like they've "earned" it somehow."

    Thanks much-
    I felt as much, but needed some clarification.

  9. @ mgibson17

    Please.. I'm hoping I misunderstood the segment. I'm wondering if all whites feel this way? That they wake up in the morning, thanking their lucky stars they were "lucky enough" to be born white? Or was this statement meant in another way. Please elaborate.

    Just saw your new comment -- sounds like a lack of clarity is now cleared up for you? At any rate, I'll still publish what I just wrote:

    No, I didn't mean it to say that either most or all whites do that. I meant that most whites easily ignore others' lack of racial privilege.

    I'm of course open to suggestions for making that intended meaning more evident.

  10. No please..
    That was fine..
    I'm good.

  11. How did lazlong's comment slip through? Pretty sure THAT's against the policy, unless I misunderstood.

    I struggle with this, in myself and with people I know. Many (yes, especially white) friends and family have this attitude that "well, you only live once" applies to ignoring suffering and living life to its fullest. Now, living life to its fullest is hard to argue with - especially when someone has experienced loss or illness; but to me, living life to its fullest doesn't mean ignoring suffering...

    And with the case you mentioned...I skimmed first, reading the quote about the man who felt "sickened," assuming that maybe he'd canceled his trip. Then, re-reading, I realized he'd just stayed on the boat. WTF?! How about canceling one's trip, and donating the refunded money? Or going on the trip and trying to help somehow (though I'm not sure how effective that would be). I don't even know what to say to that.

  12. First of all, I actually think that the topic applies to Americans in general, and specifically middle class to upper middle class Americans, and not solely white people.

    As far the cruise issue is concerned, I've actually given this a lot of thought. I go on Royal Carribean cruises with my sisters about once very year or two, and we've actually been to Labadee. We are in the midst of planning a cruise for this summer, and we read RCCL's announcement and had a discussion about it. I definitely think it's good that they are sending supplies with their ships and they've donated a substantial sum of money. I felt that on the one hand, I understand their point about tourism being important for the Haitian economy. But on the other hand, I don't think I could chill on a beach knowing people are suffering a few miles away. But to be honest, I have always experienced that duel feeling of vacation fun and concern when I go to impoverished places in the Carribean or Latin America. But I don't think that abstaining from traveling there does anything to help economies that largely rely on tourism. I just try to spend money locally if I'm going to buy souvenirs or transportation, instead of giving my $$ to the cruise line.

  13. WP here. Mea culpa. Working on my lectures in my warm office instead of getting off duff and doing the hot cocoa/ blankets/ taxi service (to shelter) for the local street people in below freezing weather. "Enough people have signed up, the ministry doesn't need me tonight". Sloth, one of the traditional seven deadly sins.

    The cruise passengers' attitudes show the common WP toxic combination of racism and human indifference to suffering of those outside a tiny circle of family and friends.

    Racism (slavery) may be White America's original sin, but indifference to suffering of strangers is every person's temptation. Some choose to act despite temptation - Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan*, and many more parables.

    *Often interpreted as having an anti-racist aspect, as race is the current local equivalent to ethnic/religious conflict between Jews and Samaritans. At least that's the way I have heard it preached. Seminarian Willow, is that interpretation common in "middle of the road" mostly white denominations?

  14. don't forget us europeans! we, after all, started it! well, ok, technically i think it was the turkish (catal huyuk? remember them? those were the days!) that kicked off the ol' surplus merry-go-round but who's counting right?

    how does holidaying on a cruise ship differ from buying shoes made in a sweatshop? or anything else for that matter?

    exploitation runs the world we live in. some have comfortable, enjoyable lives because others don't. the profits go to the rich (they put in the 'risk' but never the 'work') because that's how the system is set up to run.

    just what can we do? you can either get serious about redistribution or stop moaning.

    the choice is, er, somebodies? oh dear. that didn't come out right, did it?

    c'est la vie.

  15. thesciencegirl,

    I think you make some good points about tourism. I guess it depends on the type of vacation; I travel for work and pleasure to a lot of impoverished places too, and am always cautious of where I shop, eat, and stay when I'm there.

    Slightly off-topic: I read this article about a European-owned eco-tourism resort in Egypt - the place seemed to be doing all the right things except...oh yeah, it took several buses/trains, + a boat to get there. Not very ecological, huh. White people will likely continue to eat that sh?* up though.

  16. [i]Not only would I get my ass over to the nearest what-can-I-do-to-help station, if they could put me to use, I'd stay there. [/i]

    Er...what? Sorry, but that would be a mistake. Unless you are a skilled worker (e.g. a doctor), then Haiti really doesn't need your butt over there right now. All you would be doing is extending the bottleneck that is already strangling current relief efforts. The best thing to do is to donate through an established charity.

    You shouldn't be looking down at the people on the cruise ship who elected to stay on the cruise ship. What else could they have done? They couldn't exactly express their disgust by going home.

  17. Jillian,

    It's funny -- when I think about traveling for work vs. pleasure in the Caribbean. Several years ago, I visited Ocho Rios, Jamaica on a cruise stop. Instead of taking an excursion, my sister and I decided to wander around and see what the area was like. It was essentially like wandering around a poor D.C. neighborhood, only hotter and with an accent. It was sort of frustrating and guilt-inducing to confront poverty like that and not really have tools to do anything about it, apart from just sort of feeling bad. Fast-forward to last year, when I returned to Jamaica on a medical trip, to work in a clinic in a town up in the Blue Mountains. Though I was again faced with poverty (no regular medical care, no clean water, etc), I was going in a professional capacity and was there making concrete efforts to be of use, and of course, I also was able to live with and relate to the people there in a much more authentic way then you are able to as a tourist. What I'm left with is a feeling that I would love to go back to Jamaica, but not as a tourist. But all of my traveling certainly won't be work-related -- so what is an ethical way for me to travel to impoverished areas as a tourist? I'm really not sure yet. I also don't have the luxury of paying a lot of extra money for those volunteer/eco vacations (and I have to wonder what good they do, apart from making people feel good about themselves). I also think there's something to be said for enjoying the natural beauty of a place without feeling like you have to "fix" things for people. My career (if it continues to go as planned) is going to be largely focused on addressing health disparities of poor people, particularly in developing countries, and I guess it's becoming more difficult for me to know how to balance that professional and personal concern with my desire to just go lay on a beautiful beach somewhere. Anyway, I clearly don't have any answers, but I've been giving a lot of thought to this.

  18. Julie, I agree with your first point. I've heard a lot of unskilled people proclaim that they wanna go down there and DO something, but I'm like, what are you going to do? Are you a trauma surgeon? Are you skilled in removing rubble or controlling crises? No? Then, send a check and stay home. I think a lot of that desire lies more in narcissism than anything else.

  19. I think it is a combination of (a) feeling like you "deserve" a comfortable life (b) believing it's hopeless, people are always gonna suffer, what can a single person do, so I'll just put on the sunglasses (c) willful ignorance.

    We're talking about traveling to other countries, and the aftermath of a recent catastrophe, and all I can think of are the people who say stuff like, "I just got back from this mission (*cough*) trip to [faraway land], and it was just so heartbreaking to see the poverty and everything. It really changed my life. Have you been on any mission trips?" (mission meaning 'service', not evangelization)

    Mission trips? I walk out my church's front door and I'm in mission territory. Their churches might be in a richer neighborhood than mine, but that doesn't mean that they have to fly halfway across the world to see "the poverty and everything."

    I know you all agree with me. ;) I'm not criticizing you. /soapbox

    I think the reason "mission trips" (again, swpd: go to Uganda to rock babies for a week) are so successful is that they force a person to overcome obstacles (b) and (c) that I described at the beginning. You CAN'T ignore, and usually whatever you get to do has ooshy-gooshy emotional results that make you feel like you're accomplishing something.

  20. @ Nancy

    Yeah, that's the general gist of it in mainline Prot/RC churches. Often in sermons the parable is broadened out to a "love your neighbor, and everyone is your neighbor" type thing.

    [Some] Crazy right-wing fundie types have a galactically stupid way of interpreting it that basically results in a lesson of, "Actually, you *don't* have to love your neighbor." It's...monstrous.

  21. Julie,
    I'm not saying I would get up and go there. I'm saying that if I were already on my way there when the earthquake(s) hit, and the ship was going to continue its regularly scheduled partying a mere 60 miles from an ongoing catastrophe, I'd probably be "sickened" too. However, I don't see how vocally retreating to the luxury of the ship is any better than parasailing on the beach. You're still partying 60 miles from the disaster zone.

    I only even went there because I assume the passengers who didn't disembark think there's something significantly more honorable about that. My very first thought was: okay, you're already there, and you can't leave. If you care so much, why not go and see if you can actually help out, rather than just sitting on the ship with a stomachache? And yes, I understand that well-meaning people could just get in the way. Which is why I said, "if they could put me to use."

  22. Sheesh! The double standards on this blog totally astound me. First off, who are any of you to criticize the people on these cruise ships who may have saved (as someone mentioned) for years and pre-paid for this trip of a lifetime? Cancel their trip and donate the money? I've never been able to afford a cruise, white though I may be, but would a cruise line even give a refund to someone on such short notice? It's easy to talk about what you might do in the same situation, but until you're there, I'm not buying what you're selling.

    Yes, the situation is tragic, but as someone else said, unless they have a specific talent or specialty to offer, they are better off staying out of the way. But heaven forbid if they do have a service they can offer and they're white... they might get a swelled head for helping their fellow man of another color.

    The ships are bringing extra supplies and aid for the region along with monetary donations, some probably collected from the passengers themselves.

    Yet, only a couple topics ago, people on these very pages were outraged at the celebrities and "white" people sliding into the "white savior" role. Make up your bloody minds. You either want help from all possible avenues or you don't. Quit bellyaching about how it gets there and who it comes from.

    If this "White privilege" allows someone to adopt an orphaned child, than why argue the point? The child will be loved and cared for rather than lost in the shuffle in a region that is in turmoil. Stop complaining that the child may be taken from their place of birth. Most of us have moved on from where we were born, this will just speed up the process and potentially give the kids a better life and education and more opportunities than they may have gotten in an orphanage in Haiti. Shouldn't it be about the quality of life for the child/children rather than who it comes from?

  23. I apologize to the extent that this is OT, but I wonder how people feel about the pros and cons of framing white privilege in these generalized terms based on intersections with class privilege. Prior posts and comments here have -- correctly, IMO -- dismissed as invalid the all-too-common white retort, "I don't have white privilege -- I'm poor." Macon's post above doesn't assert that rich WP are any likelier than rich POC to behave as described. Rather, the argument seems to be, "X is something rich people do, and WP are likelier than POC to be rich; therefore, X can be fairly termed a 'white' behavior." Macon carefully clarifies that he doesn't intend to conflate race and class privilege but, then, why label rich-person behavior as "white" behavior, period? To the extent that we embrace this kind of reasoning, aren't we by implication equating "stuff poor people do" with "stuff POC do" -- and isn't that incredibly harmful? Moreover, is it dangerous to focus anti-racist discussions on observations that might be LEGITIMATELY countered with that old derailing response, "well, I don't think that's a race thing -- I think it's really about class"?

    I'm not sure where I come down with respect to the above issues, but I was curious as to what other people thought.

  24. @ nub

    IMHO, this is not so much a "stuff white people do" as a "stuff Whiteness does." In other words, there are certain values set up by white society, messages sent by that society--namely, "you have what you do because you deserve it," which seems to be the underlying belief here.

    I think that belief plays in pretty well with what we generally consider the 'value' system of Whiteness, and thus, qualifies as a swpd rather than a "stuff rich people do."

    Hm, I think I might have made things more confusing. If it seems murky to you I can try to explain further.

    @ Brother of another color

    What is up with your presumption that the child's life would be better in the U.S.? Waaaay too many factors in play to make a blanket statement like that.

    "White Male Savior" is very different from "people helping in a crisis." There is some WMS behavior going on in Haiti right now, but not on all parts. If you had *actually* read the recent threads, you would know the difference.

    @ karinova

    FWIW, I'm with you 100%.

  25. @Brother of another color - I suggest you head here... http://www.ethicanet.org/

    @Macon - I see your (very good) point on this post, but one thing Gloria Ladson-Billings (black educational theorist) pointed out about Hurricane Katrina is that the difference between poor blacks in New Orleans before and after the storm was that after they were wet -- in other words, they had BEEN suffering. I don't think the question should be how can people celebrate while others suffer from a natural disaster - the question should be how can people celebrate while others suffer from the oppressions that natural disasters are good at exposing. Was it more appropriate for cruises to dock in Haiti when 4 out of 5 people were poor the day before the storm?

  26. @nub-I doubt most black people on the cruise ship would react the same way as most white people. I grew up in a privileged POC family and even though we shared spaces with white privileged people we've always reacted differently in those spaces - and we're treated differently by POCs in service positions. For example, I can remember a guy who worked on the cruise ship talking with my family for about an hour about his life in Jamaica, his goals, etc. On our travels to the Caribbean or the Bahamas we've always been treated and felt like visiting cousins - it was a different vibe than the perspective the whites on board had and how they were treated.

  27. Even though the pictures and images of people trying to help are kind and very very considerate, but where the images of black families adopting these children? I am disturbed by the white privileges to not only dock on a luxury cruise ship but pick the children and take them home and call them your own.

  28. Thank you nub.

    On first read, this is certainly more of a class-structured argument than a race-structured argument. And the inability to see this is just nonsense. First off, was everyone on the cruise ship white?? And perhaps if so, what are typical demographics of cruise ships in the region? Secondly, since the author (this honestyly ins't an attack on the author, since I do enjoy this blog, but on the voice used) of the post is an "average white amereicn", what makes one an "average white amereicn?" Is it being born to parents from the US and being part of the almost 28% percent of americans, that have a college degree, or perhaps I'm assuming too much. Perhaps, it's a background growing up on food stamps and welfare and not being explicitly guided towards other paths in life, but saw this as the only way to be. Bt I guess that's too direct.

    It is simply all too easy to say that whiteness allows individuals to go on with thier lives without a care, without any hardships, and without any regard to others. This completely disgregards wealthy individuals of other races who are able to live this way and completely disregards the white peole living in poverty with people of color as their friends and neighbors and sharing what they can.

    Race and class were too easily conflated here to make a meaningless statement about a much larger issue of how Haiti is actually percieived and reported on in the media and how white priviledge determines what aspects of Haitian life imporant to report, or exaggerate. Don't even get started on international adoption during a crisis. That is privledge to say, let me take your children, because I can do better and don't need to know if your family cares or not.

  29. Wow, amazing how many readers here don't seem to know what an allegory is. Jeez, start with the frickin' title of the post, in the context of the frickin' title of this blog. Buncha literal-minded dweebs.

  30. @Willow: Thanks for your response. Would I be correct to understand that you're saying WP are the hegemonic force in western consumer culture, particularly rich-person culture, such that behavioral norms exhibited by rich western consumers -- even rich western consumers of color -- can be characterized at bottom as "white"? If so, I'm wondering what you (and other commenters) think about the behavior of of wealthy tourists hailing from other parts of the world where the culture is arguably less "white." Dubai and parts of East Asia (e.g. Japan, China, Taiwan) come to mind (to name only a very few). [Btw, I'm aware that the "Eastern"/"Western" terminology I'm using here can be problematic, and if anyone sees what I'm getting at but would like to suggest more proper nomenclature I'd be very grateful].

    @bingo: I don't tend to vacation on cruises, but I've visited a few luxury resorts in the Carribean, Latin America and South America. I'm also of mixed racial descent (medium skin, soft curly hair, dark eyes) (lots of clueless WP think I'm "hispanic," though actually my mother's side is half Armenian, half black) and I honestly can't say I've experienced the reception at these resorts that you describe. Perhaps it is because, even though I do not look like a typical white person, I also don't necessarily resemble most local residents. It could also be because I've taken several of these trips in groups with mostly white friends. @thesciencegirl: you mentioned you'd taken this precise cruise, so I was curious to get your thoughts. Do you feel that the POC aboard were treated markedly differently from the white passengers, and/or do you think they would have responded differently than white people in the Haiti earthquake scenario? If so, how so?

    @DAS: I agree that it can be problematic [I can't believe I just said "problematic" again] to speak in terms of the "average white American." I don't think comparisons re: average white vs. average POC income, educational attainment, etc. are entirely useless because they do illustrate the effects of institutional racism. But I agree there is an important difference between documenting and dissecting correlations among race and class, vs. conflating these two systems of oppression.

    @AE: even though Macon couches the cruise-ship anecdote as merely "an allegory for [whites'] own privileged existence," I think there is a reason everyone has been reading his presentation of this incident as a more literal indictment of white behavior. Maybe it's because he references, early on, the specific mistreatment of Haiti by the USA, or maybe it's because at the end, after meditating on his own white privilege, Macon claims that he would have remained on the ship if he'd been present but admits this would be "too easy" an absolution. Maybe it's because most of Macon's posts offer at least one or two concrete examples supporting their titular assertions about whites, and if we interpret the Haiti thing as completely allegorical then this post contains none.

  31. or maybe it's because at the end, after meditating on his own white privilege, Macon claims that he would have remained on the ship if he'd been present . . .

    No, he doesn't claim that. And he's stating that focusing on that would be "too easy," too much of a distraction, from the allegorical representation of white privilege. Yes, it works for other sorts of privilege too, and yes, macon himself has other privileges too, but as I read it, the allegory is explicitly about whiteness itself as a relatively luxurious mode of conveyance and about what its being luxurious can do to a person. Funny how much people want to talk about other things instead, even on a blog called "stuff white peeps do."

  32. @ nub

    Yeah, and you put it much better than I did. :)

    Re: Western and non-Western...I worked as a tour guide for a little while (summer job), and in my experience wealthier Americans were the most obnoxious people I dealt with. When I went to Egypt a few years ago, the staff people I talked to at the hotel invariably labelled Europeans as the obnoxious ones (I learned some interesting Arabic slang in these conversations ^_^ ).

    This is not to let tourists from other areas off the hook, but their sense of entitlement did not seep out through their pores in the same way.

    It will be interesting to see how this holds up in 5 or so years: will the elite of other countries be White-ened, or will Eliteness become less White?


    @ bingo

    Are you sure your different treatment by the crew was due to your skin color and not your family simply acting human? (Yes, I am simultaneously disagreeing with you and complimenting you). I am so white I'm translucent, and my dad is 'normal' white, and we seem to have the same type of experiences you described (and different than other WP), regardless of where we travel. Since working as a tour guide, I've simply assumed it's because we're not stark raving jackasses.

  33. @nub. You asked about different reception onboard of white vs. black passengers. That's difficult for me to assess, as I can't say that I've ever given it direct thought while on a cruiseship (though, certainly, I've thought about my race and that of other passengers when we dock in mostly black ports). I usually travel with my sisters and sometimes other female friends. Our group is usually almost exclusively black (and biracial) women, with the exception of my oldest sister (1/2 sister), who is white (though people always try to pin other races on her b/c she is so clearly comfortable around black people that they can't accept her as white -- but that's another story). Anyway, on every cruise, we make a point to chat with the staff, particularly the barstaff -- since we like hanging out at at the bar, sipping frozen drinks, and learning about where he bartenders are from; and our waitstaff, as you have the same waiter every night at dinner and it's nice to build a friendly rapport. I would say that we have made more friendships with people who work on the ship (who are largely POCs and almost all international), though we also tend to make friends amongst the other passengers. So, I have always had very positive, friendly interactions with the staff and gotten some free drinks out of it, natch -- and my sister has actually kept up correspondences with a couple of the guys. I would say that the majority of passengers are distant but polite to the waitstaff, but I'm sure someone who actually works on a cruiseship could answer that more realistically. This is getting slightly off-topic, but the racial makeup of the cruise staff is actually something that irritates me frequently. All of the white people (and if there are any Americans) are the entertainment staff, cruise directors, desk staff, and captains. The waitstaff are usually European and Asian. And then the bartenders and cleaning staff are usually black (often Jamaican). It's rather obvious.

    As for different reaction and perceptions on the islands, I would just say that part of me feels a little extra guilty walking around impoverished black ports, knowing that, had my ancestors' slaveship veered a bit further south, that could be me instead. I think I do have a more heightened concern for poverty and inequality than many of my white peers, but I don't know how much of that is my own economic background, my personal characteristics, or the fact that as a WOC, I have a more personal understanding of oppression.

    -As to the discussion as whole, I suppose I'm as guilty as anyone else of trying to conflate the topic beyond whiteness, but after reading AE's comments, I have to admit that I read the article very quickly before responding, and did not note Macon's conclusion about this as an allegory. It's actually a very powerful line, and one that some of us seem to have missed in our rush to talk about the specifics of the example he used. I apologize for derailing because I failed to read the full post, and I'd like to copy that line again here and see if maybe we can go back to his real point:

    "What kind of monstrosity is this? And what kind of monster have I become, if I refuse to recognize and struggle with parallels in this story to my own life?

    Somehow, this story feels like an allegory for my privileged existence."

  34. @Victoria: I just wanted to mention that there is a little more to the story of that heartbreaking photograph that you mentioned of a starving child dying in Sudan. About a year after taking that picture the photographer committed suicide, reportedly because he was haunted by what he saw in Sudan and also haunted by having received so much recognition for the photograph.

    According to NPR (would post a link but for some reason this comment box won't let me, but you can google Kevin Carter, South African Photojournalist) the photographer was one of the leading photojournalists to bring images of apartheid South Africa to the world.

    Photojournalism has its place, even in places of great suffering. I know that it can be an exercise of privilege and I'm not saying that it is beyond reproach. But it has a powerful role to play in how the rest of the world connects with the experiences of other humans.

  35. @ Nancy

    I thought genocide was America's Original Sin.

    @ the awesome OP whose blog increasingly becomes addictive every day--thanks SO much for the link to that article about US's debt to Haiti.

  36. @Willow - I don't doubt that some "phenotypically white" people have the experiences my family has. But I know that sometimes race is a factor in how we've been treated because we've been told so by the people themselves. Also, I think our race affects our racial experiences which affects how we behave which in turn affects how we're treated...

  37. http://thebibliophile.wordpress.com/2010/01/19/the-language-of-looting/

  38. @ Lost Left Coaster

    I agree that photo journalism has its place. However, at what point do you stop thinking like a photo journalist and start thinking like a human being? You see a person near death and your first thought is, "let me take a picture" you've likely crossed that very thin line.

    PS - I posted about his suicide. I think that speaks volumes to the conflict many journalists have, not just photo journalists. That particular photographer photographed MANY starving children and had likely become desensitized to the sight of them. A vulture could sense her impending death, but he couldn't until after the fact...when he imagined his daughter in the same situation.

  39. There's a definite connection to be made here between race/whiteness, class/wealth, and tourism. But I can't do it properly in a comment-sized comment, so this is the abridged version. Willow hints at it: there's a whole mythos (in America, anyway) of individualism, meritocracy that says if you're well off it's because you deserve it, and you deserve to keep whatever you've got. And then there're racism— positive self-racism— that helps to make sure white people are well (or at least, better) off. All of which combines to create a certain sense of entitlement. Entitlement is not unique to white people, but race and class do intersect, and when white and wealthy intersect in America, I think they do create something unique— that's what always happens when two or more isms meet. This particular flavor of blithe entitlement is, I think, unique to (Western) white people.

    And maybe it does come out in tourism and the reception people get. Willow is rec'd warmly, but my first thought on reading that was, a half-joking "yeah, but I wonder if they expect you not to be a stark raving jackass!" I know all about being a native and hating on tourists. And the American Tourist is characterized by grossly entitled behavior. I never thought about it before now, but... it is a fact that worldwide, when people picture an American, they tend to picture a white person. Considering that, perhaps the image of the American Tourist (and the fact that it's not applied to nonwhite me, despite my American accent) is no coincidence? Related: I'd always vaguely attributed my warm reception overseas to my being non-American. Of course that's not visible, but the (subconsious) logic was: my values are not 100% American, and that shows.

    [Note, I'm speaking of Western/American whiteness, because a) that's what swpd generally deals with, and b) that's what I know best.]

  40. Karinova's comment reminds me of a story I once heard from one of the professors I was working for. He said that while in Nicaragua along the Atlantic coast (where large numbers of the people are of African descent) an African-American woman was traveling with a group of white American tourists. A young Afro-Nicaraguan girl looked at the group and asked why the one "white American" lady was brown like her. When questioned further it was revealed that it never occurred to the girl that an American tourist could be black because all Americans are "of course" white.

    Other African-American friends I have who have traveled with groups of white people in the circum-Caribbean also speak of receiving odd looks and cool receptions from the resident population in places like Jamaica, Trinidad, and Dominica. They have cited feelings of embarrassment when white Americans they are with "act out." However, should they wander off by themselves they are received warmly.

    I think something additional is at play in terms of who has more access to travel here in the United States. Many white Americans have a greater freedom of mobility than most African Americans - which is its own special type of capital and privilege.

    Even at its most basic level: What do you need at this point to travel outside of the country? A passport. And passports are not cheap - well maybe if you're rich ... But as a grad student I was not pleased about the amount I had to pay for my passport to do research in Caribbean.

    This doesn't even address the U.S.'s (and I'm sure other western nations) history of cultivating the Caribbean as its "personal playground" in its own "backyard" during the first-half of the 20th century.

  41. As a person from one of those places which need tourism, if would like to state to those helping through tourism to stop comming to visit, and encouraging and maintaining paralell economies, and untaxable forms of sustainance and get your governements to stop subsidizing your agriculture and industry so we can get paid in others ways amongst other things. But then again, that would mean i believed the tourist actually wanted to help.

  42. I just came from 7 years living in India, where about 300 million non-white people are doing exactly this at the expense of the remaining 700 million or so, also non-white. Once people of any colour get comfortable it doesn't seem to be a problem.


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