Tag Archives: race

Expats, Locals, and the Space in Between

In these last few days, I’ve met several expats living and working in Egypt. Some of them, like me, are doing development work, or are trying to give back to the communities in which they live. This, on the face of it, is good. Wanting to give back and help people is an admirable inclination. Not everyone shares it. In general, I very much approve of the impulse to do good.

And yet.

When you go out into the world to “help people,” you need to be careful. If your purpose is simply to pat your own back about how good a person you are, it shows. And if you consider the people that you are helping to be fundamentally different from or inferior to you, that shows also.

Yesterday, I went into a fair trade gallery with an Egyptian colleague. The expat lady who owns the shop immediately, on hearing about my project in Egypt, exclaimed “that’s wonderful!” and proceeded to tell me how nice and rewarding it is to work with Egyptians, and they’re so lovely, and so grateful, and it makes you feel so good to know that you’re doing something good for them…in the tones you might use to talk about working with multiply disabled children. The main difference being that the people I know who actually do work with multiply disabled children don’t talk about them that way. She mostly ignored my colleague, who has a degree in Egyptology and speaks fluent English. Every now and then she would include him in her conversation in the way that one might invite a child to contribute a few words in a group of adults.  And she spoke so much and so fast that I could barely get a word in edgewise to even things out.

My colleague is a quiet man. When I asked later what he thought of this woman, he said only that she had been helpful, which was entirely true. She gave me contact information for several other organizations in the area that might be good for my organization to work with.  And her work in fair trade is truly exemplary. She provides women in inaccessible villages around Egypt with a source of income by helping them design things to be sold in her shop, and her shop has some of the highest quality and most unique souvenirs I have seen. She is helping people, and doing it well. But the way she spoke to my colleague, and to her Egyptian employee, was so paternalistic that it really put me off, and I’m sure that my distaste showed to some degree though I did my best to hide it.

Interactions like this one (sadly, this incident is not isolated) make me incredibly angry. How do you manage to speak condescendingly about intelligent adults, in their own presence, as though they were not there? As if they didn’t understand your words? How do you do it, and how do you think it’s okay?

I have to believe, or at least I choose to believe, that people who speak and act in this manner do so unconsciously. That the bias is subconscious and the paternalism is unwitting. That if they actually realized they were causing offense, that they would behave differently. But it’s hard to speak to people about bias, about the ways in which they’re getting things wrong, particularly when there are a number of things that they’re doing right. No one wants to be told they’re being condescending and possibly racist.  It’s hard to raise the issue without creating offense or alienation.  It’s difficult to know what to do. What to say.

I was raised to believe that every person has inherent worth and dignity. I try to behave towards people in a way that reflects this. I am absolutely certain that I do not always succeed, that there are times and places and people that bring out the worst in my character and bring the biases that I have tried hard to overcome into the foreground. But I try to make these instances few and far between, and I try to be aware of them, at least, when they occur.  I try to treat all people with respect. (Friends who are reading this, please do let me know if and when I fail. I won’t like hearing it, and I’ll probably hate myself a little, but it’s something I need to know).

Expathood is difficult. You’re miles from home and anything familiar, the people have different customs and culture from your own.  You’re bound to notice these differences and form opinions on them. But “different” does not mean “less than.” It does not mean “wrong.” And it’s never alright to treat someone badly, just because they’re not similar to you.

 

 

 

On Passports and Privilege

I sent in my application for a new passport today. Passport, passport card, expedited service fee, certified mail…$240 in all. Knowing that in a few weeks I’ll have a shiny new passport with 52 pages, valid for another ten years, with no greater hassle involved than some paperwork and a trip to the post office…priceless.

I’ve just read the courageous article by Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist, in which he reveals for the first time his status as an undocumented immigrant, and how that has affected his life. His story shows that, contrary to popular diatribe, undocumented immigrants to the US do, in fact, contribute in many positive ways to the country. He has a career in journalism of which I am in fact quite envious, has obtained a highly prestigious writing prize (shared with his co-authors who helped cover the Virginia Tech shootings), and has to all accounts lived that fabled story of the American Dream.

But he can’t get a passport.

The paperwork that I find simply annoying is to him insurmountable. The routine paperwork check at the beginning of each new job that for me is just an irritating step on the way to a paycheck is to him a source of constant anxiety. But he, an immigrant who has spent the bulk of his life inside the US, been educated here, worked here, paid into social security, supported the economy…he is in no way less deserving of a job or documentation here in the US than I am.

I am lucky. To have been born in the country in which I was born, permitting me to live and work here, obtain a passport, and have virtually no barriers to international travel. I did absolutely nothing to deserve such luck—it was simply an accident of birth. As is the situation of Vargas.

In the current set of debates about immigration, the greatest amount of vitriol seems to be bandied about by people who are demographically similar to me. White people born into middle-class backgrounds in conservative states within the US. The thing that most of these people don’t seem to think about, when prating about how immigrants are bad for the country, is that they themselves are the descendants of immigrants. Is it really so easy to forget?

My family came to this country a little over a hundred years ago, on boats hailing from Ireland and Italy. They joined the ranks of countless other immigrants at the time, some of whom came over on regular passports, many of whom did not. Every single new group to come over faced hostility: my Irish ancestors were faced with “no Irish need apply” signs at pretty much every business establishment that was hiring, and actually pretended to be English just so that they could get jobs. My entrepreneurial Italian grandfather named his business Modern Pharmacy, because the Piantanida Family Pharmacy just sounded too damn Italian. He also thought that immigrants were destroying the country and stealing honest peoples’ jobs, and by “immigrants” he meant everyone except for Northern Italians like him.

We haven’t made much progress, as a society. At this point, the distinctions between Irish and Italian are largely forgotten, despite being quite vehemently defended in the 1920s, when each European ethnicity was seen as being an almost-separate race, and Eastern and Southern Europeans were considered undesirable. Now that the descendants of most of the various European ethnicities have all been here for a while and inter-married, this kind of discrimination seems preposterous. At this point, we talk about “American” as though it were a unilateral identity…but the common dialogue still seems to see it as a white identity. It is not.

How do we define what it means to be American? Vargas is attempting to change the dialogue with his organization Define American. He’s talking to people, collecting stories. Trying to get people to think about what “American” really means.

America is a country of immigrants, regardless of how long ago those immigrants may have arrived. “American” is my college roommate, born in the US to Mexican immigrants, now working on her PhD in engineering. “American” is my Muslim friend from Tanzania, currently teaching at a university in Florida. “American” is my Filipino fencing coach, my African-American professor of social policy, my Ukrainian-born professor of Russian language and literature. I could go on. Every single one of these people is just as much an American as I am. Some have regular American passports, some have green cards. Some may be undocumented, I don’t know and feel no need to ask. All have a right to be in this country. All have a right to try to live the American Dream.