Neither Here Nor There: Perspectives on Identity by the Young Eritrean and Ethiopian Diaspora in America

September 20, 2010

From Privilege to Change

Filed under: Uncategorized — Habesha Diaspora @ 9:44 pm

I am a spoiled and ignorant woman of great privilege not just globally, but throughout the known history of mankind. Not only do I not have to worry about where my next meal comes from, but I can also control the temperature of the air around me, the amount and temperature of water I want/need in any given moment, and I wear a freshly laundered and different outfit every day of the week, maybe even month. Now that that has been said, let us dissect the meaning of privilege in different contexts and how we privileged individuals can best carry this privilege with the guilt and responsibility which trails after it like cosmic dust after a comet. Then, let us further disabuse the notion that privilege is synonymous with blessing; though these two constructs may have overlapping meanings at times.

As I mentioned in my last article, I have always had my basic needs taken care of. I have always managed to pay my rent and car note, insurance and school loans. Now, I am certainly not asking for a medal for I am well aware that my hard work is only a piece of my privilege. Most people on this earth work as hard and even more diligently than I work. My circumstances, which have nothing to do with my hard work, are certainly the key components to my personal privilege. That being said, I am, however, a multicontextual being. We all are. We exist beneath, within and around the multiple layers which make up our person. How many of us are able to function in many culturally varying contexts? I can speak Amharic and greet my elders at an Ethiopian gathering. I can also engage in debate with my professor, who will even let an expletive or two slip from my mouth out of passion, frustration, or pure comic relief. My awareness of my privilege and awareness of life outside of my privileged life is what prompts me to thrive in my “North Americanized” life full of deadlines and expectations of mass production which drives this capitalist society.

As I am trying to express the relativity of such things as privilege, a particular example comes to mind. I’ve spoken to many people in Ethiopia who have and have not come to the United States for various reasons. Som have expressed an unrealistic idea of life in the United States. Credit scores, visas, passwords, building keys, health insurance, disability, gay and civil rights, financing options, field trip release forms, credit card debt, over-time, night-shifts, minimum wage, judicial representation, license plates and drivers licenses, child abuse laws, animal rights, individualism, BET, saturated fats, etc… I am not implying that none of these daily expectations of ours do not exist in Ethiopia. However, the United States operates under a system which keeps tight control over who will enjoy all the benefits of being a citizen and if you come to the States expecting the full ranges of privilege automatically, you may be in for an unpleasant surprise. If you want the good ‘ol American Dream, you absolutely have to jump through hoops and make very personal sacrifices to attain this life-style. If you do not cooperate with the system, your options can become alarmingly limited.

My point can be summed up in one word; relativity. Privilege is relative. There are many privileges I do not have in the U.S. because I am not a member of the majority. This injustice should not be ignored for the mere fact that I am a global member of the most privileged as well. Instead, it should serve as a catalyst for putting my own privilege into perspective. This process is one which has no attainable end in sight because, when it comes down to it, I do not know what real hunger feels like. I do not know what it is like to work my own land or to have to beg for money just to survive. I do not know the expectation of being a mother at a young age or the lack of opportunity for education. To claim to know these experiences is pretentious. To expect myself to understand these experiences is unrealistic. But to acknowledge the truth of and accurately perceive my contextual layers and limitations is the first step to carrying my privilege. To respect those who tread paths I may never experience without needless pity but humble admiration of their strength is the second step to carrying my privilege. To be content with myself as I work hard and strive for those universal values I have built for myself within my contextual understanding is the third step to carrying my privilege.

Finally, to be able to name the blessings which have come out of my experience, those blessings which are intertwined with my privilege and those blessings which transcend any privilege, like love and compassion, is the final step to carrying my privilege. When we are first made aware of our privilege, guilt and fear are temporary emotions which fade only with our ignorance. However, to carry privilege in a way that respects everyone else, guilt and fear must be minimized. We should focus on the opportunity and responsibility which comes with our privilege. Only then will we be able to extract the deepest blessings tucked away in that privilege as we dodge the human phenomena of ignorance and complacency.

As multicontextual beings, we can likely all find areas in our lives where we are privileged with particular rights, opportunities and resources. We can all also find areas in our lives where we grieve certain losses we experience. We must balance our expectations of ourselves with the responsibility we have to our fellow man in order to recognize, name and attain our true blessings.  Only at this crossroad can privilege and blessing share the same manifestation.

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