Ethnic “white privilege”: Maybe we are the “poor” people

Can you…

Weave your own clothes?…Build your own house in a day from materials straight out of your own back yard?… Cultivate your own field of corn, rice and beans?… Build your own canoe from the trunk of a tree?

Well… Can you?

I bet that if you’re a privileged, white person from one of the “First World” nations, you probably answered “no” to most or all of these questions.

You might be thinking, “Who can do all these things?”

The indigenous people of Central America can. They’ve been doing it for centuries, and they will continue to pass these skills onto their future generations, unless their habitat and natural resources are destroyed due to the insane agenda of my country of birth (the U.S.), among other First World nations who are hell-bent on exploiting the natural resources of the world as fast as possible.

Unlike most of my fellow Americans, I was willing to admit that my life of privilege in the U.S. meant that I agreed to consume more than I needed as well as fund wars every time I paid my taxes. In my mid-thirties, I abandoned my life of privilege in exchange for a humbler, simpler life. I packed my bags, quit my job, donated most of my belongings to a charity, and came to southern Belize, Central America … sight unseen.

I’m not mentally handicapped or mentally ill, as many of my friends and family have insisted I must be (“Why would you quit your job?”… “You ruined your career” … “You must be crazy”…). I’ve already reflected and written about this here.

I exchanged my career, my cushy job, my new car, my proximity to family and Walmart and fancy movie theaters for the life I’m now living, which is much more sane than the life I would be living, had I stayed in my country of birth and continued serving the ruling elite in their agenda of planetary destruction. I chose to live a principled life instead of the privileged life I was handed by virtue of my birth and heritage.

Within a year of moving to Belize, I’d purchased an acre of fertile land on the outskirts of a small town where I found other counter-cultural ex-pats who shared my values: We’d left behind our lives of privilege in the First World to learn how to grow our own food, live off the grid in simple, thatch-roof houses, and attempt to acculturate in a Third World country.

Over the past five years, I’ve wanted to give up many times. But I made friends with the locals and learned from them. I improved my Spanish fluency to the point where I could joke around with the locals and haggle in the street markets. I learned how to be more resourceful and get by with less.

I’m glad I persisted, though I often feel uncomfortable and inconvenienced—sometimes terrified—every day. But I’m definitely not bored. In spite of the obvious challenges of living as a white woman in a Third World country, I choose to live a life based on principle instead of a life of privilege.

I now have my own small, thatch-roof hut with no electricity or municipal services. I now have a small garden of fruits and vegetables. I can now say that I prefer to live south of the border than in my country of birth.

I still have a lot to learn.

When I lived in the U.S., I used to think that I should come down here and “help” the poor people. In my blind state of privilege and hubris, I thought I had something valuable to offer. Then I actually came down here, to the Third World, and I gradually realized that instead of trying to “help” the indigenous people, what I actually needed to do was learn from them. After all, I’d been pushing pencils my entire life as an academic seated at a desk in air-conditioned rooms. I hadn’t gotten my hands dirty, hauled buckets of water, or any of the other forms of manual labor that are part of the fabric of life here.

I’d hammered a nail into a piece of wood … mmmm, maybe once?… Suffice it to say: I had a lot to learn. I had the sense enough to get over my pride and get humble enough to learn from the indigenous people.

Locals with whom I’ve had the pleasure to become friends have kindly and patiently taught me a lot of skills I otherwise wouldn’t have, if I hadn’t come down here and been willing to learn: how to plant rice, how to sharpen a machete, how to build a thatch roof, how to milk a cow, how to cultivate coconut trees, etc., etc…. The skills I’ve learned over the course of five years have enriched my life to the point where I no longer consider the local people to be “poor”; on the contrary, I now consider people in privileged, First World nations to be the poor ones, while the indigenous people are rich beyond our understanding.

Recently I had a conversation with a friend from the U.S. She told me that she had to put her mother, age 89, in a nursing home, because everybody in her family was too busy with their jobs to take care of her.

“That’s unheard of down here,” I told her. “Nursing homes don’t exist in Central America, unless they’re funded and built by Americans who value such a thing. The people down here don’t understand the concept of putting their elders in a nursing home.”

She said, “I can understand why you like living down there.”

I replied, “It’s a saner culture.”

Here, old people live in multi-generational homes, usually in one room where everybody sleeps beside each other, wakes up together, cooks together, eats together, and celebrates … together.

The fact is that vast majority of people in the world live on less than 10 dollars a day in a state of what we would call “poverty”, but when you look at it from a certain standpoint, maybe we privileged white people from the First World are the “poor” ones.

It’s a Faustian bargain: We white people live a life of privilege in the First World in exchange for living in a rat race where we barely have time to talk to each other. If it’s hot outside, we close ourselves off from nature in air-conditioned rooms and complain about the heat whenever we have to walk to our fancy cars. We spend more time on our fancy tablets and smart phones than we do talking to our kids and our elders. We eat poor quality fast food, get sick and don’t have time to exercise. We bury ourselves in debt until we die and get buried in fancy cemeteries. We rely on specialists instead of learning how to do basic skills ourselves.

On and on and on… We privileged people are an abomination: We’re indulgent and spoiled without even realizing it. We’ve sold our souls to the devil, and the devil would have us believe that we are the best. That we have it all.

In a desperate, vain attempt to assuage our deep-seated guilt, we take trips to foreign countries and make donations to good causes. Sorry Charlie, but that’s not enough. It was never enough and will never be enough.

A friend of mine, a reluctant messiah of a message that no one wants to hear, points out in his incisive writings that we should have dismantled the whole rat race and stopped being hamster cogs in the giant wheel a long time ago. But in our selfishness and denial of reality, we failed to do so. We settled for a life of privilege in exchange for destroying our own planet. To deny it is to ignore the undeniable facts.

From an economic standpoint, Third World countries are poor because of the disparity created by First World domination and appropriation of resources. In a saner arrangement, we’d all have enough, and we’d all be living like the indigenous people of the Third World: getting by on less than 10 dollars a day, building our own houses, healing our bodies with medicine from the plants we cultivate in our own back yards.

I don’t know where we privileged white people get off thinking that we can come down to Third World countries and redeem ourselves by leaving stuff behind as donations and then returning to our jobs, our big houses, our big cars….

I suppose I can have compassion for the hubris of white people who think they need to “help” the poor, indigenous people. I’m guilty of it, too. I came to Belize, Central America over five years ago with the same pompous attitude. I was born and bred in a culture of privilege where I never had to pick up a broom or pull weeds out of the garden or get my hands dirty, unless I was playing in a sand box in my school playground. I understand the mentality of trying to help people who are less privileged than me. Yet, I no longer participate in it. Instead, I left my life of privilege behind and chose to live and work with the indigenous people, gradually developing appreciation, respect and admiration.

Here, indigenous people learn how to survive without industrial inputs before they learn to walk. Meanwhile, we privileged white people show up in Third World countries in large tour groups, in shiny vans with shiny, new suitcases and shiny, new shoes, determined to save the world with a few donations of shiny, new “stuff” that we assume the villagers need.

An indigenous wisdom keeper once shared a story with me from her childhood. She remembered how a bunch of volunteers from the U.S. showed up in her ancestral village in Honduras with a truckload of shoes for all the children. It was a custom in her village for the indigenous people to walk around barefoot, because they believe that our feet are our “soul”: When we walk barefoot, we stay connected to the earth.

After the white people had dropped off the shoes and left the village, all the people gathered, threw the shoes into a large pile and set it on fire. My friend recalled with a smile how she stood there beside her mother, watching the shoes burn for hours.

Reality check: The villagers have been getting by just fine without these shiny, new things for centuries, and they’ll keep getting by, with or without us.

If one is willing to slow down and examine what lies at the root of our predicament, as I do daily in quiet, seated meditation, I can clearly see that fear is the primary motivation. We privileged, white people are afraid that we are not good enough. That we don’t have enough. We believe we are not enough. So, we desperately build more… faster, better, bigger, more … more … more…. on and on and on.

It’s a culture of insanity rooted in a culturally inherited inferiority complex that would have us assert our dominance over nature and other less developed nations, thereby proving to ourselves that we are better. Bigger. Faster. More.

Fear is, ultimately, like a raging river fed by rivulets of comparing oneself to others. Fear motivates all kinds of insane, disordered behavior and activities designed to deceive oneself into becoming better or more than what we thought we were before.

What if I’m enough, right now, just as I am? What if I don’t have to race like a rat in a maze designed to keep me confused and busy? What if I can slow down and enjoy my life?

What if I accept that I have enough… I am enough…. There is enough… for everybody?

If I am willing to accept reality as it is, without the overlay of my culturally inherited inferiority complex and concomitant disordered behavior and thinking, then I might start living more like the indigenous people of the Third world. Getting by with less. Being satisfied with less. Living well with the natural resources that surround me. Without needing to assert my dominance over nature, other humans, or other species.

Please, do yourself and the world a favor. Don’t go on a weeklong excursion to a foreign country in the Third World thinking that you can drop off a load of toothbrushes and parasite medicine and then return to the U.S. feeling good about yourself. The indigenous people are likely to forget about the toothbrushes, and the parasites will be back in two months, anyway. Besides, the herbs and plants in their gardens can do a much better job of getting rid of parasites than your medicine. Like I mentioned already, they’ve been getting by just fine for centuries with or without us sticking our long, European noses into their simple, humble lives.

We privileged white people assume that we are helping indigenous people with handouts, when our charity might actually be harmful, or at the very least, unnecessary….. Consider for a moment that indigenous people know how to do most everything themselves, while we rely on paid specialists and laborers to do most everything for us: mow our lawns, build our houses, take care of our animals, grow our food. If you’re a white person living in a First World country, when’s the last time you did any of that yourself without complaining or paying somebody to do it for you?

I’d suggest you try what you might consider impossible, or at least, more challenging: Stay here for longer than a week. Get to know the people. Live with them. Get your hands dirty learning from them instead of just leaving your money behind and getting on a plane to get back to your job, your big house, your mortgage payments, etc, etc….

Stop thinking you’re not good enough, and look inside of yourself to realize that you already have enough. Stop acquiescing to the agenda of people who would have you believe that you need the next best product… faster, better, bigger… more.

I am enough.

I have everything I need, right here, right now.

I don’t need to go looking outside of myself.

I enjoy my life.

Intercultural conflict: Is there a solution?

First and foremost, I am writing this essay for myself, because I wish to muse and reflect on relevant topics that I otherwise might have no opportunity to discuss openly with anyone willing or available to listen. I would like to thank those who take the time to read this essay and I would like to implore my readers to please not take my essay as a complaint, a criticism or a request for intervention on anyone’s part, as I would prefer that said intervention be motivated by a source other than me. Again, I am writing this to share my thoughts and nothing more. I welcome input, ideas or feedback in response.

To some extent, I am writing this essay for a secondary purpose. I would like to open an honest dialogue about intercultural conflict, because I think it’s a topic worth considering for people who live and work in a culturally diverse setting.

I’ve been traveling and working in many different places in Central America for the past five years. By choice, I’ve lived as a single woman in a variety of places under vastly different conditions; ranging from a dirt floor, tin roof hut in an isolated village to a high-rent apartment in the center of Guatemala City to shared housing with a family in their home in southern Mexico. Mostly, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity and privilege to be a part of different cultures that are not my own, and I’ve been fortunate to make many friends along the way.

I often find myself quipping to people I meet, “Yep, been there; done that.” I’ve been exposed to not only the joys of getting to know many pleasant, kind people, but I’ve also experienced the other end of the spectrum: I’ve received my share of hostility from local people who care not to invite a foreign “white girl” into their communities for their own personal and/or sociopolitical reasons.

I have grown accustomed to dealing with and being the brunt of other peoples’ hostility and, at worst, outright rejection due to the inevitable fact that I am from a different culture and therefore not accepted with open arms by local people. By choosing to live and work in a foreign country, I willingly expose myself to discrimination, ironically, because a white woman becomes a minority when living in a country where the majority are not white. While I may be more privileged than the local people in many ways, I do not enjoy the same rights and privileges as a local person with citizenship, social security, the ability to open a bank account without hassle, etc, etc…. No matter how hard I try to acculturate, I will always be perceived and treated as an outsider.

While this can be a lonely and sometimes terrifying position to be in, I am willing to courageously forge ahead knowing that I have enough friends who care and enough stubbornness and determination to continue doing what I’ve come here to do: work, save money, publish my novel and build my house. Unlike Peace Corps volunteers, however, I am here on my own dime, of my own accord, without being held accountable or beneath the protection of a volunteer organization. I fly no one’s banner but my own, and I realize that I do so with considerable risk.

Since November 2015, I’ve been living and working at a charming eco-lodge nestled deep in the tropical jungle where staff members come from a variety of cultural backgrounds in a country notorious for its cultural diversity, despite its relatively small size and population. Co-workers include native Mayan people, Creole people, as well as volunteers who come from the United States (myself included in the latter category). I would like to believe that cultural background is irrelevant and we can “all get along”, but in the Third World, the laws and company policies which protect “equal rights” and “non-discrimination” are not actively enforced or even observed in general.

Here in Central America, I’ve observed that “anything goes,” as long as you can either get away with it or pretend it’s not a problem. To my own chagrin, I seem to be incapable of pretending that injustices, whether petty or monumental, are not a problem. Like the snowball effect, the small injustices tend to turn into the big ones. And when injustice becomes a big problem, people are bound to get hurt in one way or another.

Consider me the self-sacrificial whistle-blower who is willing to take a stand for injustice. I know that doing so implies that I will inevitably have to face the music, which is rarely pleasant. For one, I’m often accused of deliberately inciting drama. Maybe so. Or I simply call attention to what already exists and would otherwise remain under the surface. Over the course of my life, I notice that I often play a role of holding people–including myself–accountable to their actions. Believe me, it’s not an enjoyable role to play, but since I voluntarily live a life of service, it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.

Based on my personal and professional observations as a licensed therapist and teacher at my workplace, there is a significant amount of hostility and disrespect present among staff members. The three cultures working daily in close contact with one another (Maya, Creole and white Americans) tend to form cliques and therefore “stick together” and gang up on the underprivileged minority who is outnumbered. In my case, as a volunteer foreigner, the outnumbered person happens to be me.

Unless I stand up for myself and assert my rights to food, a safe place to live, and other basic privileges of life, these privileges are often threatened to be taken away or, at the very least, made more difficult by people who are afflicted with any one or all of the following: (1) jealousy; (2) resentment due to one person earning more money than another; (3) hostility due to cultural differences and misunderstanding; etc, etc. As a white woman from the United States, it is an undeniable fact that I incite jealousy, hostility and resentment just by being who I am: I earn more money than the local people, I can get better jobs, I can go back any time to my uber-privileged country of birth, and I simply don’t fit into anyone’s cultural norms. Arguably, it is understandable why people would want to “beat up” on someone like me: I am, apparently, an easy target.

It appears that I will continue to be a target, unless and until I stand up for myself, roar like a lioness, and/or beat my hairy chest amidst my fellow beasts in the jungle.

There is considerable infighting amongst the ethnically diverse people I am privileged to know and work alongside. I am not writing this essay to condone or become a proponent of said infighting. On the contrary, this essay is my humble attempt to curtail what I sadly observe. On a daily basis, I notice jealousy, backbiting and vengeful behaviors that are sometimes subtle and sometimes overt. While many of these behaviors go unnoticed or ignored, I am writing this essay to call attention to what has become a significant enough issue to interfere with normal working operations, at least behind the scenes. On the surface, anyone visiting my place of work would probably feel welcome, well taken care of, and treated to a great time … thanks to the hard-working staff and our earnest attempts to do the best job possible.

For the purpose of this essay, I find it unnecessary and even counterproductive to qualify the specific scenarios, interactions and situations in which the aforementioned interpersonal and/or intercultural dramas play themselves out. Not only have there been too many for me to number or keep track of, but I am not sufficiently interested enough to remember them and much less to record them here. For the most part, I do not bother to discuss when such interactions take place, in the interest of “keeping the peace”: I am, after all, here as a volunteer foreigner and therefore outnumbered by far.

It can only be helpful and considerate for those who agree with me to stand up and assert our rights as human beings sharing the same space, where we all live and work. I assume it’s true that we all wish to live and work in a place that offers basic conditions of comfort and safety: (1) access to healthy food; (2) a safe place to live and work without sexual harassment; (3) a decent community of people who look out for each other’s best interests. It would appear, based on my observations and my experience living and working in Central America for the past five years, that the above three basic conditions of comfort and safety are not always present, and when they are not, it is countercultural and therefore problematic for me to insist that these basic conditions are provided with fairness and respect to all of us, regardless of cultural background or ethnicity.

I’d like to end my musings with a question for reflection: Is there a solution to intercultural conflict and misunderstanding between people of different cultural backgrounds? If you, dear reader, have a solution in mind, please leave your comments below.

The late Bob Marley had his own thoughts on the topic, inspired by his own personal views and beliefs. Let’s consider what he had to say: