The CVT’s Keys to Checking Your Privilege When Trying to “Help”

November 9, 2010

I keep saying I’m going to post this (as a response to comments to my last post), and then I just haven’t quite done it. I’ve written it a couple times, trying to be all well-spoken and clever, and that just hasn’t panned out. End result – I have way too much going on now to hold over enough brainpower to make this one of my better posts. However, I need to just get it out there, so here’s the quick and dirty version:

So. I am currently living abroad (in China).

But I’m a U.S. citizen. English is my first language. Half of me is white. Uh-oh, right? This has all the makings of one more privileged missionary trying to push his cultural beliefs and ideals on the "unenlightened savages." I know better because I’m "American." "Those people" need my help because they’re incapable of helping themselves, right?

Um. No. The answer to that is no.

But the real question (and less obvious answer) is – what the Hell am I doing here, and how can I make sure that my work out here doesn’t just reinforce all the same imperialist notions that have crippled so many non-white-dominated countries? Now there’s a question, yeah?

Luckily, I’ve been down this road before. In fact, I’ve been down it a few times (on both sides). I lived in Tanzania and worked for an American NGO that pretty much did all of the privileged, obnoxious, damaging things I listed above right out of college. End result? I finally figured it out – and more or less got fired from a "volunteer" job because I "took sides too much" with the local teachers and families. (*1) Um. Wasn’t that supposed to be the whole point?

Later, I worked for a series of white, middle-class-dominated non-profits that claimed to help "empower" "at-risk youth" (i.e. poor or dark-skinned kids). Had my white bosses tell me what it was like to be a Person of Color, and what I had to do to make things more equal for myself.

And now I’m here. In China. Doing a job that is hoping to contribute positively to the well-being of Chinese citizens (through educational means). Wait? Did I say that already?

Anyway, the point is that I’ve had a lot of experiences that have forced me to think about the common dynamic of: person with privilege decides they have the solution for people with less privilege, without actually asking those other people, nor truly understanding the situation. And through all of these experiences (and my writing on this blog, the work I do), I’ve accumulated enough experience that I finally feel able to address this. (*2)

So? This is my self-created checklist that I run myself through every time I am in a situation where I hold some sort of privilege over folks I am working with (*3):

1. Do they have the majority of power over me (money, position, and choice)?
This is all about flipping the power-dynamic that makes these situations so f—ed up, normally. If the people I’m trying to "help" can fire me, ignore my opinions, and use their money however they want whether or not I like it, then my "privileged" foreigner status is largely negated. There are still psychological aspects of that privilege still in tact, but – in the end – if I don’t know what I’m talking about, they can easily keep that from being a problem – by ignoring me or getting rid of me. However, if I have the money or higher status, then my stupid ideas have to be just taken, and we know what that entails . . .

2. Is what I’m doing their idea? Did they ask me to do this?
This – again – flips the usual dynamic. If the solutions being enacted didn’t come from the same people who are supposed to benefit from the solutions, then there’s something wrong. Because no outsider (however that term might apply) can know the true situation better than the people who live it. Ever. So – unless I was asked to do this work, or – better yet – I just got brought on (as lower-status personnel) to help them do whatever they have decided needs to be done, then it’s that whole "I know better" and "they’re incapable" mentality . . .

3. Is my "out" (whatever has me not doing this work, etc.) mostly negative for me? Would me getting "out" mean losing more than just a job, losing access to things I care about, etc.?
This addresses the last major function of privilege – the ability to quit on the people we’re "helping" with little to no repercussions. If I go to some other country and screw everything up, I have nothing to lose, because – at worst – I just go back to my country and feel a little bad about it. So blindly just experimenting on a less-privileged people holds no risk for me, which is going to make me so much more likely to do things without thinking them through very carefully and getting a lot of second opinions. Same thing with all these non-profits in the States. Teachers, administrators, and other "do-gooders" can just roll in for a year or two (often straight out of college) and do a terrible job with little repercussion. When it’s all over, they just get some other job and move on, while the real people affected by that terrible job are left to deal.
So – there’s got to be risk and some pretty major negative consequences for me to reduce the "reckless, thoughtless work and leave" phenomenon. Getting fired is one thing, but it’s not enough. I’ve got to lose something really key to my own soul by bailing on this kind of work, or else I’m just going to treat it like a risk-less gamble.

And there you have it. Nice and simple. A three-pronged checklist to determine if I should even consider doing work that has me (as an outsider) attempting to contribute positively towards people over whom I hold privilege, on their turf (by the way – all answers should be "yes").

So – to finally answer Maloy’s (implied) question:

Trust me, I’ve thought this through, and my role out here is not as an imperialist. I’ve still got my personal beliefs and causes, and I’m not going to just toss them aside (same way that I wouldn’t back in the States), but I’ve checked my privilege as much as I can to make sure that my causes cannot be made to be their causes, unless they actually want that to be the case. Just to further clarify:

1. I’m the only person with non-Chinese blood in the company. It’s a Chinese (PRC) company. And I’m not at the top, by any means. Plenty of Chinese folks (native-born, non-English speakers) are above me to tell me to shut my mouth or fire me if I’m not doing what they want me to do.

2. The whole idea for this company and what we’re trying to do comes from a native Chinese guy trying to address problems he sees as he’s raising his kid in this school system. It’s all about problems millions of Chinese parents are very consciously trying to find solutions to. The angle is fully Chinese-bred. I came in long after the "brainstorming" phase to help him (and the other founders) best implement the solutions they came up with.

3. I didn’t choose exactly choose a profession in which there is a guaranteed position for me in the future, but losing this job wouldn’t kill me, either. However, I have family tied into this company. Family out here in China. This falling through won’t destroy me, by any means, but there are pieces of me tied to this personal enough that I’m not really going to get into it on this blog. Just trust me on this one.

So. I still will not deny that I hold privilege. I always will – that’s the way of things. But in terms of the work I’m doing, how I’m doing it, and the possible benefits (or costs) for the people of this country I currently live in? I’m not your typical "Westerner" working in a foreign country . . .

That said, I can never let myself be too sure of that fact – I must always question it and be open to being questioned about it. Because if I stop doing that? Then I am exactly like all the other imperialists. So I thank Maloy, specifically, for bringing this up, and for your spot-on commentary about it all. And I hope my readers continue to challenge me and make me better. (*4)

(*1) I got living expenses paid, but out there, that’s pretty much nothing.

(*2) The thing is – I never intended to get involved like this when I moved out here. I came to China for purely selfish reasons. This was about seeing where my family was from, meeting family that lived out here, getting a bit of a stronger connection to this side of my "roots." That was it. I kept telling people that I wouldn’t stay that long because I needed (long-term) to feel like my work was meaningful, and I couldn’t see how I could have "meaningful" work out here in a country that has no need for me (because I wasn’t willing to walk down that path mentioned above).

(*3) I think I’ve got it boiled down to the keys, but I’m definitely open to suggestion if I’m missing some major points here.

(*4) I also hope you continue to exist, in spite of my ridiculously infrequent posts as of late. Some day, some day I will get consistent again, I swear . . .



  1. CVT, I really, really hate to say this, (and hopefully someday I won’t feel like this), but until approximately a year ago, I would’ve agreed with this 100%. I mean, I still agree with it in theory, about people with racial/economic/citizenship privilege needing to shut the fuck up and listen to what locals/the underprivileged (sometimes one and the same group, sometimes overlapping group, sometimes totally separate groups) have to tell us about their oppression. I get that. And as someone who’s been a member of intersecting oppressed and privileged groups (I’m a woman, and black, but I’m also pretty educated, well traveled, and multi-lingual, but also not financially very well off), it would piss me right the hell off if someone came to me and was like “You women need to stop doing xyz and then you won’t experience oppression” or “you blacks need to stop doing this and stop complaining”.

    However, over a year ago, I returned to my birthplace, which turned out to be a gigantic letdown. I mean, like every other left-leaning Westerner, I thought Africa’s current situation is the result of colonial rulers fucking up the continent, taking its natural resources, and destroying the economy, going back to their homelands after “independence” (and yes, it’s in quotes because I don’t really think any African nation is independent as long as it’s dependent on aid from the West) and just pretty much wreaking havoc on the continent. Then I came here. Seriously, it isn’t the West’s fault anymore. I can’t speak to the entire continent, obviously, but as far as my country is concerned, there are SO MANY natural resources and there is SO MUCH money coming in from exporting these natural resources, but the amount of poverty is just staggering, especially when compared with all these government officials I see driving around in shiny-ass Beemers and Jags.

    In addition to the ridiculous economy that clearly needs fixing, the education system is garbage. I mean, the official language is English, and I read newspaper articles everyday rife with grammatical errors, people who have graduated from a pretty respected government institution with BA’s or MA’s still being able to put together subject verb agreement, people unable to defend a thesis, or really put together any kind of reasonable analysis even in casual conversation. (I literally have hundreds of examples of these conversations written down.)

    Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is…I really think in some cases the foreigners/privileged do have a better idea of what to do. The entire education system in this country needs to be re-done. Sure, it’s not perfect in America, but at least (some) people who go through the American school system are able to put together a logical argument. Sure, Western governments also have corruption, but you don’t have a situation where people register for their ID cards and they never arrive because the government “doesn’t have the money” and then the officials have money to take lavish vacations to Milan with their families and mistresses.

    This is an incredibly long comment.

  2. still being able to put together subject verb agreement

    should read “unable”

    And I also seem to have made a lot of the grammar mistakes I’m complaining about myself, huh?

  3. Great post.

    Number 2 is especially important and something I will think about in my future interactions. My bf and I are half white as well, and hope to eventually work in communities of color after grad school. Despite identifying as POC, we obviously need to check our privilege on a regular basis.

  4. I think I might have to rival Medusa’s comment in terms of length, as well. Medusa, I understand the frustration you feel when it seems like locals are the ones who are continuing the pillaging of their own countries. I grew up partly in the Philippines, which is suffering a similar fate, and I went through the same anger as you have, but you can’t say that this isn’t the fault of colonization. A character in one of Chinua Achebe’s books sums it up best by saying, “First [the white man] eats, then we eat.”

    Among other things, colonization draws up false borders and forces people who have no historical ties with each other to consider themselves as nationals of one country. That alone makes it impossible for people to feel any loyalty to their nation, therefore they feel like they have the right to exploit it. Also, watching the colonizers ravage the nation with impunity makes opportunists want the same thing. And then it becomes imprinted into the culture and in people’s behaviour and it seems like it’s just a hopeless spiral down. Locals did not make the system corrupt, it was corrupt to begin with. You can’t remove corruption while poverty exists, which is why the PRC is madly trying to grow their economy.

    One of the reasons that I admire Lee Kwan Yew is that early on, he recognized that people will segregate according to ethnic lines until they reach a point of personal financial stability. Because of that, he saw that freshly-decolonized countries had no chance of applying democracy. First, you have to unite people and make them believe that they are citizens, with responsibilities and rights. And that will never happen in countries where the colonizers just hurriedly left and replaced their rule with “democracy,” while leaving behind the same exploitative culture/system and poverty.

    As privileged outsiders, it’s not that we see things more clearly, in fact, our vision is warped by our privilege and expectations of how things “should” run. By saying that foreigners can do things better than locals, you’re basically using the same excuse that colonizers have used to “enlighten” brown people. Do you really think that locals don’t realize what’s wrong with the system? Or that they don’t want to change it? In fact, they know better than anyone what needs to be done, they simply don’t have the power to make change. As an Asian, I can see clearly what’s wrong with the American education system, does that give me the right to charge in and start telling people what to do? And that sounds really weird, too, doesn’t it? It’s like the PRC government presuming to tell Americans what to do. But if you flip it, it seems perfectly normal for Americans to tell PRCs what to do, doesn’t it? What you’ve written, even if it’s in the best intentions (which lead to hell, anyway), is simply a reiteration of the same thing.

    If anything, I believe that our responsibility is to empower locals to make changes. Otherwise, no real systematic change will happen, it will simply be people acknowledging the power of someone who has privilege over them.

    As an example, I’m currently living in Hong Kong and in 2005, the anti-sodomy law targeting gays was struck down. The law (imposed by the British, incidentally) was challenged by a local man who attended local schools and was not what we would consider anyone particularly Westernized. I was really struck by an interview he gave when he said that the reason the challenge was so successful was that he was not considered an outsider. Because he was a native son with supportive parents, there was a groundswell of local support for him. Granted, Hong Kong people are generally quite tolerant, anyway, but even someone like me, raised in Asia but educated in Westernized schools, would have been viewed with suspicion if I had attempted to challenge that law. We shouldn’t assume that locals are all walking around perfectly content with the status quo. Instead, we should make sure that we support those who have the ambition to make changes. If we can provide access, contacts, money, and if we truly want to make a difference, I think this is our responsibility.

    On the other hand, this idea of lending privilege, though, makes me feel uncomfortable because it’s still kind of propping up the system itself. As some background information: My mother is of mixed ethnicity, which means that I’ve inherited some features which clearly mark me as privileged, especially in post-colonial Southeast Asian societies that place value on light-skinned people of mixed ethnicity. (You’ll notice, for example, that mixed-race models are disproportionately represented in SEA media). Add to that my class and education privilege, and I’m about as big an asshole as you can get without white privilege.

    Because of this privilege, local friends or colleagues will sometimes ask me to help them out when they’re facing discrimination or difficulty related to colonial mentality. I freelance as a teacher at local schools, and sometimes, if there is conflict between a school and another freelancer who happens to be local, she or he will often ask me to intercede, knowing that the school is more likely to treat me kindly because of how I look and how I speak, to respect my opinions because I’m not a local. I also get a pass in terms of entitlement: I can wear pretty much what I like (within reason), I can just sashay into the staff room to enjoy the airconditioning, security guards are really nice to me and don’t question my presence. If I fuck up, people forgive me much more readily. Sure, I try to extend this to others, but in the end, I’m not changing anything by lending privilege.

    I don’t think anything can change without systematic revolution, as much as I don’t believe revolution will happen. And because of that, we have to flounder around in the grey areas of privilege.

    At the risk of being a longwinded jackass, CVT, I wanted to ask you about that particular aspect of cultural imposition and privilege. I hope you don’t feel like I’m busting your chops, in fact, I think you’re such a thoughtful writer on race and privilege, I’m afraid that you’ll end up disappointing me, hah.

    Your checklist works in very clear-cut situations, but what about the ones where the lines between being privileged and not are blurred? If you don’t mind me sharing this anecdote: On a visit to Manila last year, I took a taxi home, sitting shotgun. Taxi drivers are obviously quite low on the economic ladder, so from the get-go, I had the advantage of class and ethnicity over him. Within a few minutes of the journey, the driver began to comment on my light skin, telling me that he hadn’t had any money to eat all day, but seeing such a light-skinned girl in his cab, he felt his hunger dissipate.

    I was extremely uncomfortable, as you can imagine, and as politely as I could, I told him to quit it and just get me home. The entire time, I glued myself to the door and looked out the window. I had really mixed feelings about the whole situation: I was both privileged and “oppressed,” so what was I supposed to do?

    When we reached my parents’ building, I turned to pay him and saw that he was masturbating. I leapt out of the cab and the security guard of my building came running out to see what was wrong. At that moment, I could have told him what happened…and then what? The driver, who had a family (based on the pictures on the dashboard) would be taken to a police station (assuming the guards didn’t beat him down there and then). Because of my privilege, the cops would throw him in jail and beat him up. He would have his taxi impounded, his family would have to come up with thousands of pesos to bail him out, money that they probably didn’t have and would have to borrow from a loan shark, etc.

    What the driver did was wrong and disgusting, but I had the power to affect him a lot more than he could affect me. In the end, I didn’t say anything. My brother was shocked; my parents raised us to be outspoken, so this was unbelievable to him. But really, this is a grey area of privilege that I still don’t really know how to navigate. And honestly, if this had happened in Hong Kong with a HKer driver, I would have kicked up a fuss because we would be on a more even playing field.

    CVT, as a mixed-race American, I’m sure you’ve encountered similar situations (well, perhaps not a masturbating taxi driver, but correct me if I’m wrong!) in the PRC or elsewhere that your checklist doesn’t provide answers to. What’s your take on navigating these grey areas?

    ps. Sorry about the length!

  5. Maloy,

    As privileged outsiders, it’s not that we see things more clearly, in fact, our vision is warped by our privilege and expectations of how things “should” run. By saying that foreigners can do things better than locals, you’re basically using the same excuse that colonizers have used to “enlighten” brown people. Do you really think that locals don’t realize what’s wrong with the system? Or that they don’t want to change it?

    I agree with you definitely on the fact that a lot of people from developed nations do have warped vision brought on by our privilege. That said, (and I am not trying to speak for every developing nation or even every African nation, because I clearly can’t) in my country, I don’t think people know what needs to be done. Or that they want to do any work to change it. I hear people talking about how they are going to appeal to the government to solve their problems instead of putting forth any kind of effort. Or “give it to God” and praying, but not actually putting forth any effort to try to change the situation. I know that there definitely are people who are not in a position where they can easily change their lives, but change isn’t easy, and I see this attitude coming from a lot of people who have a lot of resources at their disposal. I hear people say shit like “This is our country and it’s not going to change so stop complaining about it.” that to me, does not sound like people who know or care about improving shit.

    And as far as education here goes, I really don’t see how it can be improved without people with a “Western” education come in and show people how to do it. I mean here, it’s all about rote memorization, and I’ve heard from several sources several times that with that kind of an education, it’s really difficult to be able to think critically or analyze anything, and how can that change without people who do have that kind of education intervene? I know it sounds like I’m advocating the second coming of colonialism, and I really am not. In fact, I STILL see remnants of colonialism (it never really left…) and it makes me sick. Unfortunately, I am really stuck on how things can improve without some guidance from…well, you know.

    I heard the vice president on the radio today being interviewed, and he was asked a question as to how he can justify the amount of money that is going to be spent on housing developments in comparison to people’s salaries, how it’s going to be paid back, and he seriously couldn’t say anything beyond “people deserve houses” in different ways. Sure, people do deserve houses, but that is not really a thorough analysis and answer to the questions that were being asked. And this is coming from the second most powerful person in the country. Ugh, I don’t know. I just think things look bleak when the VP is unable to, in an interview, articulate something that seems so obvious to me.

  6. Medusa, I understand what you’re saying. While it’s true that every post-colonial country has its own quirks, every one of them shares the same issues: corrupt and ineffective politicians, broken bureaucracy (education, police, military), widespread poverty and ignorance, etc.

    However, you’re assuming that people with a Western education haven’t actually come in to try to make changes. In fact, a lot of the elites who were in government post-decolonization in many of these countries were probably educated in Western schools. And the way colonization works, these wealthy people will send their own children (who will eventually inherit power) to Western schools as well. Not all of them end up corrupt assholes, but even the ones who try to make changes always fail.

    Outsiders coming in and fiddling with this and that problem in the country is not going to help because the entire system itself is broken. I mean, change can’t even happen in the US, a so-called developed country. Regardless of Obama’s good intentions and probable attempts, he still can’t change the political system.

    I’ve talked about this with friends of mine still living in Manila, and it does frustrate me, too. My friends belong to the elite class, they have resources and all that, but they aren’t motivated to do anything. Why? Because they honestly don’t want to risk their status. Yes, 90% of the country is in deep poverty, but that actually benefits them because the standard of living is so low that their wealth has more value. Because of poverty and corruption, they can bribe people to get whatever they want. The elites have no incentive to change the system when they benefit so much. That’s why you can’t rely on anyone in government. Why should they change anything when they’re living the good life already?

    As for the poor, they are too ignorant and uneducated to even know that there are better things out there. Once, I got carsick from the smell of pollution while stuck in traffic in Manila, and my driver was shocked to find out that other cities weren’t as polluted. He simply had no idea that was possible.

    You can’t really blame the poor for lacking critical thinking skills, survival comes first before anything else. And yet, these people are allowed to vote, so obviously, their votes go to the most corrupt or popular candidates, which further exacerbates the broken system.

    It’s not fair to compare the West with post-colonial countries: the West had the advantage of time, history and colonization. Plus the international system itself is rigged so that Western players always come out tops. And even with all of its development and wealth, you still have masses of ignorant and poor people in the West. What more can you expect from a country that began with a huge handicap already?

    One of the things I think should be avoided is blaming the oppressed for their own victimization. I know at a certain point, people must take the responsibility for their own condition, but coming in as an outsider and assigning blame is not going to make that happen. The truth is, most people anywhere would rather endure small sufferings every day under the status quo, which is familiar to them, than undergo a huge pain (I hope I’m writing clearly here because I’m thinking of a phrase in Chinese that I’m not translating very well) even if that would improve things. Just look at the US!

    But if real change must be made, then what is needed is a huge pain, ie. a real revolution. Not a coup, not civil war, but something similar to what Mao accomplished with the Cultural Revolution. Will it happen? Probably not, but then, I’m rather pessimistic about things like this. The Cultural Revolution caused so much suffering to so many people, but really, it’s what has saved the PRC from becoming another typical post-colonial country.

    If you’ve read this book already, I apologize, but I really suggest reading Chinua Achebe’s “Anthills of the Savannah,” a book that really perfectly encapsulates this problem. I still don’t know if it inspires me or depresses me whenever I read it.

  7. You said that you’re the only person in your company that isn’t Chinese, or even partly Chinese. When you first introduced yourself you said that your mother is Chinese and your father is White.

  8. “This blog is the take of an ethnically-ambiguous, Chinese/White male. It’s also from the perspective of an experienced teacher and youth worker. It’s about oppression in all forms and levels – and building connections between “others” of all kinds to find solutions to the systems that keep us all “in our place.” *

    What you just wrote above.

    “1. I’m the only person with non-Chinese blood in the company. It’s a Chinese (PRC) company. And I’m not at the top, by any means. Plenty of Chinese folks (native-born, non-English speakers) are above me to tell me to shut my mouth or fire me if I’m not doing what they want me to do.”

  9. K.C. You copied and pasted it, and I’m assuming therefore, read it, but you somehow inferred that he’s not partly Chinese? How?

    Maloy-I definitely will read that book. I think Chinua Achebe’s books are an exercise in frustration. Specifically his characters.

    CVT, where are you in this discussion?

  10. He, the writer of this blog, literally stated that he’s the only person with non-Chinese blood in the company. Yet, in his introduction to his blog he states that he is a half Chinese half White male.

    In the “What is this all about” area of the site, which can be seen in the top right hand corner of the page, the author states that he is half Chinese and half White. If you read through the article again you will see where he states that he doesn’t have any Chinese blood in him. I copied and pasted what he wrote below. Feel free to read through the article. You’ll see that I am correct.

    “1. I’m the only person with non-Chinese blood in the company. It’s a Chinese (PRC) company. And I’m not at the top, by any means. Plenty of Chinese folks (native-born, non-English speakers) are above me to tell me to shut my mouth or fire me if I’m not doing what they want me to do.”

    This is what the author wrote in his introduction.

    “This blog is the take of an ethnically-ambiguous, Chinese/White male. It’s also from the perspective of an experienced teacher and youth worker. It’s about oppression in all forms and levels – and building connections between “others” of all kinds to find solutions to the systems that keep us all “in our place.”

    • He never states he doesn’t have Chinese blood. He says he’s the only person in the company with any non-Chinese blood.

  11. K.C.-

    Right. He’s the only person at the company who has non-Chinese blood. His white blood? It’s not Chinese.

  12. Medusa, yes, Achebe’s work is painful to read sometimes.

    Oh, another book I strongly recommend (if you haven’t read it already) is Albert Memmi’s “The Colonizer and the Colonized.” It really gets into the social, historical and mental context of colonization.

    It’s really kind of sad that books like this and “Orientalism” have been out for decades and yet very little has changed since their publication, and we all keep repeating the same kind of bullshit. Buddha was right…

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