Hey Chuks! I know you've spoken about it on the podcast and on other posts but I still don't quite grasp how black people from western countries have western privilege. Is it in context of respectability politics? Is it possible to have western privilege with it being limited by global anti-blackness?
I get this ask every few months, and I’ve responded to it in parts here and there and this post by a Racialicious writer also touched on it, but I will do my best to summarize and contextualize what I have been saying on this point.
First and foremost, this is not a conversation about just black people or other POC in the First World but its one centered around citizenship and living at the heart of empire. We live in a world of intersecting spheres of domination, imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, as bell hooks has coined, and within this framework we can be both victim and victimizer, oppressor and oppressed depending on the respective aspect of our identity. Just as I am marginalized as someone who is black and gay, I also have clear privileges and am an oppressor as someone who is cis, male, college educated and upper middle class. And just so, I benefit tremendously as someone who is American living at the heart of American empire with its cultural, political, military and economic domination and exploitation of the Third World.
Many hostile responses that I’ve gotten to these discussions of “Western privilege” have failed to fully account for the impact of imperialism and how that figures into our lives as oppressed people in the First World. Yes, white people get the lion’s share of the “spoils” of America and other First World country’s continued exploitation of the Third World. And yes, it is obtuse to conflate the experience and benefits of “Western privilege” of an African refugee in the U.S, for example, here fleeing wars spurred by Western imperialist aggression with that of a white boy from the suburbs. That is not only obtuse, it is offensive. There are tremendous amounts of nuance based on the intersections of a person’s other identities and “Western privilege” is not something which people benefit from equally at all.
Living in Taiwan for a year, however, and engaging as part of the destructive imperialist machine of the Fulbright program and the “teach English abroad“ movement really changed my understanding of how privilege operates in non-"Western” contexts especially. I was regularly told that I was not a “real” American because I wasn’t white, but at the same time I was living and working in a Taiwanese aboriginal village where people were being forced to learn English. I still had an American passport which gave me an inordinate amount of power and access that was not reciprocal with the Taiwanese communities I lived and worked in. During my year in Taiwan, I met a Taiwanese guy who was doing his Taiwanese military service at a detention center in Yilan County, and he said that all of the people in the center were SE Asians and Africans. The thought of an American ending up there was basically unthinkable. I also learned more about the history of US imperialism in Asian countries and how to this day black military service people who commit human rights abuses have also been protected by the US military industrial complex along with their white peers.
The most important experience for me, though, came when I went to mainland China for 2 weeks in the midst of my time in Taiwan. While there, I was struck by the fact that many Africans I met told me that they would pretend to be African American to try and access marginally better treatment. China is a hostile and incredibly antiblack environment where my Americanness was regularly denied and where people explicitly told me that black people weren’t human, so I was initially totally confounded and confused by this. How would being “American” be a benefit to them at all since they were still black?
This is where the cultural capital and more soft aspects of Western privilege (in non-First World contexts) really became shockingly apparent to me. I am an African immigrant in the US but as someone who is American, I was treated differently and clearly better than other Africans in China and Taiwan. Yes, my Americanness was denied in many spaces, and yes there are intersections with class that come into play, but that does not capture the full picture at all, otherwise these Africans would clearly not be trying to play themselves off specifically as Americans. Moreover, I had protections with my American passport from harassment which they regularly endure from immigration officials in China. Even when I went back to Taiwan this summer, I was (to my knowledge) the only person on my flight from the US temporarily stopped at the border and questioned about “where I was from,” clearly because I was the only black person on the flight. When I said that I was American, I was waved through. I wonder, though, if I had been traveling with my Nigerian passport instead of my American one, how different my experience at that moment may have been, since Africans are regularly profiled as drug dealers and illegal immigrants in China and Taiwan (to a lesser extent) and are harrassed constantly by immigration officials to the point that African migrants have rioted in Guangzhou against the abuse. Whether “pretending to be African American” worked or not for the Africans I met is another question, but they clearly knew and understood that being African did not carry the same status as someone who was American or European, even if the person in all of those instances was black.
All of this changed how I saw and understood privilege and the effects of imperialism especially. I honestly think it can be hard for people to wrap their heads around this, especially if they haven’t had the same privilege to travel as I have. What we see here in this country is the evisceration of black communities and families by our racist, fascist, virulently antiblack police state. We see the militarization and ongoing human rights abuses in Ferguson and in poor black communities across this country. We see black people being killed by extrajudicial violence ever 28 hours with no recourse from the American “justice system.” This is genocidal violence and it has been ongoing for centuries in this country and against black communities across the globe. And none of what I’m saying erases that. As I’ve said before white privilege and Western privilege are not the same thing, even though many aspects of them are tied together.
Time after time, when I’ve talked about this people latch onto and are triggered by the use of the word “privilege,” and I get why that is in the face of what I described above. I think it’s because when we-and I’ve been guilty of this as well-discuss or throw out ideas like “Western privilege” for First World POC without bracketing it appropriately, the nuance gets completely lost. The understanding that we all benefit from living at the heart of American empire (or other First World countries) at the expense of Third World people and the indigenous people whose land we are also occupying, but that these benefits are not flatly distributed based on our, race, class and immigration status is lost. The understanding that the imperialist capitalist violence being enacted by First World countries across the globe can both benefit and hurt us as non-white inhabitants of these empires is subsumed. And the understanding that none of this discussion of our privileges accrued as inhabitants of various empires erases our everyday realities of state-sanctioned white supremacist, patriachal capitalist violence. All of that nuance can and does get lost without the appropriate bracketing, and I’ve failed to do this several times as well. Because it’s important to reiterate that the ways in which I experience Western privilege as a black immigrant who was born in the U.S. is different from how some white boy, who enjoys the compound effects of white privilege and Western privilege (which reinforce one another), does, which is different from how many of my African friends who are seeking asylum in the U.S. and have pending immigration status experience it.
All of this bracketing is crucial because we do not experience or engage with the spoils of empire in the same way at all, and this cuts deeply along racial and class lines, immigration status and indigenous/non-indigenous lines as well.
But as I learned from traveling and living in Taiwan especially, there is not a flat “black experience” by a long shot and there are massive power differentials shaped by the effects of imperialism. That is something which it is also harmful and destructive to deny if we are to build solidarity with people in the Third World. This is also not ahistorical by a long shot. Cultivating solidarity with the Third World is something which black American leaders have been at the forefront of for decades. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. both talked at length about the destruction wrought by imperialism, because they knew that a liberatory politic which did not account for imperialism would never set any of us free. It is also why Angela Davis traveled to African countries to learn about and engage with feminist leaders and thinkers there. There has been an ongoing exchange of ideas and the building of solidarity for decades now, and part of this requires that we not only understand how our struggles are shared, but we also understand the ways in which our experiences are not the same. And acknowledging the various privileges we do have as black (and non-black POC) people in First World countries-which again are nuanced and not flat-especially over other black people in the Third World is a key part of that puzzle. Because unless we dismantle all of the interlocking parts of bell hook’s coined “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” including imperialism, while also acknowledging all of the nuance which I’ve tried to describe in short above, none of us will ever be free.
Taiwanese servicemen in the Imperial Japanese Army.
They were any Taiwanese person who served in the Imperial Japanese Army or Navy during World War II whether as a soldier, a sailor, or in another non-combat capacity. A total of 207,183 Taiwanese served in the military of Imperial Japan and 30,304 of them were declared killed or missing in action.
When asked the reason for serving, many veterans stated that they joined for better treatment for them and for their families. According to interviewed veterans, those who served were given extra food and other rationed articles for their families, and were less likely to be discriminated against by the Japanese government. Another reason, as stated by some veterans, was that they were treated more equally with the Japanese in the military they “were all soldiers for the Emperor.” After Japan’s defeat and control of Taiwan ceded to China, many veterans who survived the war were persecuted by the Nationalist government.