Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Using my privilege, for better or worse

Before I left for Colombia I wrote a question-and-answer post about what I would be doing in Colombia and why. At the time, I wrote:
I fully acknowledge that accompaniment presents a bit of a paradox: my privilege, based on a system of racial and cultural hierarchy that I disavow, helps keep me safe, even while I am taking on a role of solidarity. I do wrestle with this contradiction, and will like write more about it as I carry out my work in Colombia. For the time being, I will say that the role of the accompanier is not to enter people’s lives with an agenda – a way to change, educate, or “help” the community. We come with humility; the community members are the ones who are doing something amazing and we are there simply to support them in their project.

The other day I had an experience that reminded me of my promise to reflect and write about my role as a foreigner here. One of my friends in the community asked me to do a favor for her; she needed someone to pick up a couple of different official forms so she could register her son for his first year of high school (the Peace Community doesn’t have a high school, so kids have to go study in a city, usually Apartad√≥). She couldn’t go both because the jeep ride to and from town is relatively expensive, and because she had a big corn harvest to attend to. I was going to town anyway, so I agreed to help out.

Upon arriving in town I swung by the first office she told me to visit. The woman at the building’s gate told me that they didn’t start giving out the form I needed until 2pm, but that I should come back about 1:30 to get in line. I then proceeded to the next office, but by the time I got there it was hitting noon and they were kicking people out for the lunch hour. When the guard saw me, however, he called me over and inquired as to what I required. I told him I needed X form, and he promised he would take care of it for me, asking when I could return to pick it up.

That more or less taken care of, I went to find my own lunch, then headed back to the first office to get in line. Upon arriving I found that 20 or so other people had already beaten me to the chase. As I made my way to the back of the line, the guard of that office and of the office next door, who were chatting near the end of the line, called me over. They began to ask the usual “you’re a foreigner aren’t you?” questions, as well as what I was doing at that particular office. After chatting with them a bit, the other guard urged the guard of the building where I was waiting (“my guard,” we’ll call him) to help me out, and so my guard went away for a minute and returned with a slip of paper on which the number 6 is written. My place in line, in other words.

Soon afterwards 2pm arrived and the office opened to begin distributing the forms. As I stood around waiting my turn, I noticed a sign informing visitors one was required to have a copy of the ID of the person to whom the form pertained – something I did not have. Having promised to get the form, however, I decided to stick around and give it a try. When my turn came, I handed the sheet with the info I was seeking to the woman behind the desk, telling her I was doing a favor for a friend. She took the paper, typed a few things into her computer, and quickly handed me the very form I sought. Apparently, that ID requirement is flexible. I then went to the other office and picked up the second form, without a problem.

When I returned to the community and handed my friend the forms, she was extremely grateful; what with all the favors done for me, I spent about an hour on something that would have taken her most of a day, at least. While she attributed it all to me being a foreigner, I am quite sure being a woman didn't hurt. Nonetheless, the difference in reception that I received was quite striking. Interestingly, a friend who recently spent time in Nepal contrasted our experiences. There, people tended to see his nationality as an indication of wealth to be exploited – he always seemed to be charged a “foreigner's tax” when dealing with authorities, something I haven’t experienced.

That little incident exemplifies the contradictions implicit in my presence and work here: in order to help someone, I took advantage of the fact that as I foreigner I tend to be considered in higher regard. My utility as an international accompanier relies on a similar assumption: an international’s life is seen as worth more than a Colombian’s life. Just as with the favor I did for my friend, as an accompanier I’m exploiting that assumption, all the while doing work that aims to create a more just world. I don't always feel comfortable with this contradiction, but I tell myself that it's for the greater good (at least the accompanier part - I'm not so convinced about the doing-favors part). I'd love to hear thoughts from my dear readers!


Sara Koopman said...

the way I've been saying this contradiction lately is that accompaniers use the fact that their life "counts" more to work for a world where everyone's life "counts". thanks for continuing to muse about this online! have you had conversations with community members about this? I think one of the key things is for THEM not to think that you count more, or to think that YOU think you do, but to know that accompaniment uses the screwed up fact that officials think you do. if that makes any sense.

Moira said...

Thanks for your comment, Sara. You're right, it's not that I "count" more, but that I am perceived to by the people in power. But doesn't taking advantage of that fact via accompaniment mean that I am helping reinforce that perception? That's what makes me uncomfortable.

Sara Koopman said...

yes, that's precisely the question I've been grappling with - can you use systems of privilege, be they passport privilege, racial privilege, educational privilege, English language privilege, what have you - without reinforcing the systems that give you those privileges? or even more hopefully, are there ways you can use privilege that actually *dismantle* those systems as you use them? I think part of the key to that is talking openly, at least with community members, about how privilege is working, and how to unwork it as it were.