Every weekday morning, I am picked up by a driver, named Chema, who takes me the less-than-two miles to work. This is obvious privilege, but it illustrates several other ways in which I have been blessed with safety and opportunity, really for my entire life.
These Are Dangerous Times We Live In
The other day, we were speaking (in Spanish; he has never had the chance to leave Guatemala or learn English) about how stressful my online classes were, and we got to talking about why I have to take them. I explained to him that it’s because my family couldn’t afford one more semester than necessary of my university, because it’s very expensive, but he was still confused. He said that he had always though that all Americans are rich and he really believed it.
He was genuinely confused by the fact that I needed a scholarship in order to fully pursue my passion here in Latin America, and that my parents hadn’t just handed me cash and wished me luck. But this doesn’t seem to be an uncommon understanding of the US, just like many Americans think of Mexico as full of ignorant farmers. And honestly, Chema’s observation is not completely wrong.
Let me explain— In Guatemala City, all of my co-workers have been robbed at gunpoint multiple times; if someone taps on your car window, unless they’re holding a gun up to the window, you do NOT roll down your window. That person probably wants to sell you something or steal your car. If they hold a gun up to the window, they’re probably on a motorcycle and just want you to quietly hand over your cellphone. That’s what people learn from a young age as they grown up in this beautiful but stricken country.
Guatemalans, and billions of others around the world, witness friends and neighbors and relatives continually attacked for their possessions, or even worse, for their bodies, and it makes for a jaded populace. The Guatemalan civil war lasted four decades and only ended about 20 years ago, so most are still dealing with the mental and physical toil of it all. Everybody surveys their surroundings with weary eyes, like one would observe a jaguar: you know it could attack soon, but there’s no telling exactly when.
Types of Privilege
Open & Private Communication
If you live in the US or Europe, you probably grew up in a society in which you could pretty securely walk down the street with some friends, listening to music and joking around. You grew up with the privilege of open communication with others, in which you could talk about whatever you want in the street, without the worry in the back of your mind that someone may be eavesdropping for info to help them attack you later on.
There’s also the consideration of how you look, and the shameful truth that thinner people, and to a grander extent, those with lighter skin are still treated with more respect in most societies. Lighter-skinned people are thought of as smarter, richer and more beautiful than those with darker skin, none of which is true, especially on an individual scale.
As a female, I don’t experience the freedom which the other half of the population does, and this is an unfortunate truth. Often I have to stay inside instead of going out, because I don’t have a guy to escort me somewhere. If I don’t bring someone with me, I’m often afraid of being physically attacked at any given moment, due to the cannibalistic looks and catcalls I receive daily just for existing. It sucks, and I realized before I even had a name for it that I was not the recipient of male privilege.
Another thing Americans are known for is spending money on products that they just don’t need, contributing to the consumer culture image we project to the world. Along with this is the mere existence of vacations, an idea foreign to most people in developing countries due to the hefty price tag. The ability to even dream of being able to travel outside of your country is absolutely a privilege.
For every few thousand people who book a vacation this year, there are millions who never even got to leave the town they live in. Chema, along with my Guatemalan coworkers, are all examples of people who have never left their native country. Many people are perfectly content with such lives, but the rest are not, and would gladly travel had they been born with the means. Not necessarily rich, but still able to dream of one day buying a computer or plane ticket.
I have only met one openly gay person during my two months in Guate, and he was a visiting Londoner who could leave at any moment. No openly-non-straight people have wandered into my path, and there is a reason for this— it is highly ingrained in Guatemala, and I think most societies, that being gay is wrong and to be transsexual is not even a concept, much less an option. Most of this seems to be religion-based, as it is in the US, but it’s something to remember that not everybody can openly love their partner or even themselves, wherever they go.
Even if it’s not your first language, being able to speak English opens up lines of communication in almost every country. Many African nations have now declared English an official language, and the majority of citizens receive education in English. Korea and Japan are notorious for importing English teachers to work in even the most rural parts of the country. Being able to speak English to some degree means that you can communicate with others who speak English, most often not as a first language. Ecuador, Bosnia, South Africa, Malaysia, and anywhere else you go, English is never far away. If you’re reading this right now, you have experienced the benefits of English privilege, whether you have left your country or not.
Blessed But Distressed
Beyond these there is a veritable uncatalogued of privilege; of being born in a certain geographic location, thin, beautiful, educated, able-bodied, bilingual, mentally stable, having consistent shelter and indoor plumbing… Each of these functions on a scale, and intersects with each other immeasurably. Most of us don’t even notice these things unless they are pointed out to us, but consider this a wake-up call. There is a story behind each of these advantages and when I realized I had them or not; in particular that moment in which I realized how profoundly they affect my life.
So yes, it’s not that easy being a young white female in Latin America, looked at as somebody’s next meal in so many ways. But it’s not truly comparable to what others go through. We all have our burdens, and mine just so happens to be very light, comparatively. I obviously don’t fit in here, but that won’t stop me from enjoying every minute of it.
Song of the week: Schoolboy Q— Blessed
What is your biggest privilege?