I did a small ‘ethnoraphic study’, and spoke with a young lady who I assumed to be an African-American. When she questioned me about racial discrimination in the southern states, I suggested that perhaps she might know better than I. This is when she explained to me that she was from one of the Caribbean islands and came to this country when she was very young. I apologized and told her that it was very wrong of me to have made an assumption based solely on her skin color.
It is interesting to consider that how we think about race in ‘America’ is unique. We, many times, use a hyphenated distinction to clarify an ancestral heritage. For example, we might distinguish some ‘Americans’ as African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and even Native-Americans. Yet, we rarely do so for those with a European heritage. We should ask ourselves why this may be. We might even ask ourselves what we mean when we use the term ‘American’.
I would suggest that using the term ‘American’ to describe U.S. Americans is quite ethnocentric, for sure. There are two entire continents that are named America, in which there are many, many countires. When ‘we’ refer to the U.S.A. as ‘America’ it is not acknowledging that there are other Americans who are, in fact, not U.S. citizens.
I think that it is good for me to identify myself as a U.S. American of European descent. This is not unlike my recent and intentional use of my white-skin racial classification. If I intentionally acknowledge my dual privileges as a U.S. American of European descent and my white-skin privilege, then I am more likely to be acknowledging others’ disadvantage. Then I might be more likely to work to change the unjust system of power and privilege. Attempting to be ‘colorblind’ does not acknowledge others uniqueness or their possible disadvantage.
I think it very important to acknowledge my extreme privilege because then I find myself acting with much more generosity toward others who do not enjoy the same privilege. I have found the need to take this position because I have learned of the difficult life of Bolivian coffee growers, the Mexican migrant farm workers, and the Mexican women working in the maquiladoras just south of the U.S./Mexico border, for example.
Coffee growers, for the most part, live a very impoverished life – even as they grow one of the world’s most profitable commodities – and even as many of us are willing to sip Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks at $2.00 per cup while the growers, many times, do not even earn enough to cover the costs of growing.
Mexican migrant farm workers (including children) are oftentimes used for the harvest of the foods we eat (affecting their education that contributes to a cycle of poverty for these families). The harvest of tomatoes (here in the U.S.A.) is one very good example of the use of child labor in agriculture. The film, The Harvest, documents the unacceptable condition of child-workers that live this life.
The stories of the young women, who are exploited as they work in U.S.A. owned ‘American’ factories just south of the U.S./Mexican border (maquiladoras), are documented in the anthology, Ethnography at the Border, by Pablo Vila. These stories have given new meaning to the description, ‘American Made’, for me.
Acknowledgment of my own extreme privilege in relation to these American neighbors of mine prompts me to now be aware of how my shopping decisions affect them personally and this encourages me to make changes in my actions to either better their situation, or else minimally, to not contribute further to the hardships they already endure.
For example, I now purchase my coffee from Equal Exchange, a cooperative of growers and distributors that was created so that coffee growers could avoid the use of ‘coyotes’ (middlemen) in the marketing of their product, and thereby realize a greater profit for the growers. I now grow a larger and larger garden of my own each year so that I am not relying so much on the exploitation of child-labor for my food needs. Additionally, I now make an attempt to know about the working conditions of those that produce the goods and services that I consume such as is the case in the maquiladoras. This way, I can support the businesses that I believe offer working conditions that are less exploitative and offer greater equity of profit for their workers.
When we, U.S. Americans, do not acknowledge that there are, in fact, very real differences in the life circumstances between us and our less-privileged American neighbors, we are much less likely to see our own position of domination in this hierarchical system of oppression.
If any of us drink coffee or tea, or consume chocolate that is not ‘fairly traded’ or if we eat foods that we did not grow ourselves, or used goods that are produced overseas in ‘developing nations’, there is a very real possibility that we are, through our purchasing decisions, oppressing and exploiting others. We all play a part in a hierarchical system of domination, but for the most part, are completely unaware of this fact. In the very same way that many white-skinned folks are ignorant to their position of racial privilege, so are most U.S. citizens ignorant to their position of extreme privilege in world wide affairs.
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