Saturday, May 23, 2009

Using my privilege: Clarifications & additional thoughts

I’ve been doing some more reflecting on my last post about exploiting my privilege in my work as a human rights accompanier, and I realized that I oversimplified things quite a bit and perhaps left readers with an incorrect picture of how human rights accompaniment works. In that post I equated the treatment I receive from low-level Colombian functionaries based upon how I look with my effectiveness as a human rights accompanier in preventing harm to the members of the Peace Community. In fact, the power of accompaniment does not lie in the fact that I have blond hair and green eyes, and is only partially due to my U.S. passport (my possession of which one might guess at, but not be sure of, just by looking at me). The majority of our power is based upon all the work we do behind the scenes: meetings with local, regional and national civilian and military officials; the political lobbying and other kinds of political pressure that FOR does in the U.S.; the media coverage we generate. True, my passport gives me greater access to the offices of many Colombian officials (and of course the U.S. embassy) than most Colombians have. But without all of the work we do to open communication channels and demonstrate our ability to exert political pressure, that passport would not allow me, for example, to call up the cell phone of the general who commands the brigade that operates in this region when a combat breaks out nearby or a particular community member is threatened.

That is not to say that accompaniers of color (FOR is unique among accompaniment organizations in Colombia in that it has had several Latinos – and a Sri Lankan-American who looks Latino – serve as accompaniers) don’t have different experiences in certain situations than I do. Several years ago, for example, the road between San José and Apartadó had a paramilitary checkpoint – or at least that’s what FOR heard, because every time accompaniers traveled on the road, the checkpoint was nowhere to be found. Then one day the aforementioned Sri Lankan-American was traveling on the road without his FOR t-shirt on, and the jeep on which he was riding was stopped at the paramilitary checkpoint. Clearly, my blond hair and green eyes do have an effect on the armed actors here, but are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions to be an effective accompanier.

1 comment:

Sara Koopman said...

not sufficient - but maybe necessary for some to have and rub off on others? or do a few accompaniers of color in the mix work because there are lots of other "white" accompaniers around - if not with FOR then with PBI. would the reaction you get from the guys at checkpoints, from the general, be the same if all of those accompaniers were Latinos from the US? or what about if they were all Bolivians and Peruvians? and sure the general does, but does the young soldier at the checkpoint really have a sense of FOR's ability to generate calls from Congress, tons of emails? is that what makes him take you seriously in the moment? I by no means want to play down the very important background organizing that makes accompaniment work - just to also recognize the ways systems of privilege also play into the mix.