Tuesday, January 19, 2010

blithely live relatively comfortable lives while others are suffering


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via stuff white people do by macon d on 1/19/10

Here's something that I was thinking about today:

What is it that allows white people to blithely enjoy comfortable lives, while others lead less enjoyable lives just because they weren't lucky enough to be born white? How can we white people so easily ignore that difference?

"White privilege" describes advantages that are afforded to white people simply because they're white. And the thing about privilege is, it only works when others don't have it. I think that's another way of putting what it is that those of us who are white too easily ignore.

I think one explanation for this callousness is that in a way, whiteness does something that having extra money also does -- it insulates people. Both can wrap people in a sort of cozy, protective bubble, and desensitize them to the feelings and sufferings of those outside the bubble. I know my whiteness has done that to me. And I think that the money my nation has (including that which it has long been expropriating from places like Haiti), and thus the money that I have and can earn as an average, white citizen of that nation, has done that to me too.

Of course, real money is necessary to fully enjoy the privileges of whiteness. Even if you're white, having very little money can mean that life is far less than comfortable and enjoyable. Yes, being white can make it easier to obtain real money, but that doesn't mean that all white people have enough money to lead fun and comfortable lives, just because they're white. And yet, simply because of their race, they often have less trouble doing so than those who aren't white. And more to the point, they can easily ignore the problems of those who, simply because they're not white, have more trouble doing so.

Such thoughts, about our callousness towards those less fortunate than ourselves, were inspired for me yesterday by hearing about a luxury cruise ship that was headed for Haiti when the earthquake struck. The ship's owners decided to go ahead with a planned beach landing, including all the attendant festivities, despite the nearness of the beach to the devastation and suffering in Haiti.

What kind of monstrosity is this? And what kind of monster have I become, if I refuse to recognize and struggle with parallels in this story to my own life?

Somehow, this story feels like an allegory for my privileged existence. And focusing on the passengers who stayed on the ship and refused to take part in the sun and fun, or on the crew's limited Haiti relief efforts, and then saying, "Well yes, that's what I would do too," seems too easy.

As the Guardian reports,

Sixty miles from Haiti's devastated earthquake zone, luxury liners dock at private beaches where passengers enjoy jetski rides, parasailing and rum cocktails delivered to their hammocks.

The 4,370-berth Independence of the Seas, owned by Royal Caribbean International, disembarked at the heavily guarded resort of Labadee on the north coast on Friday; a second cruise ship, the 3,100-passenger Navigator of the Seas is due to dock.

The Florida cruise company leases a picturesque wooded peninsula and its five pristine beaches from the government for passengers to "cut loose" with watersports, barbecues, and shopping for trinkets at a craft market before returning on board before dusk. Safety is guaranteed by armed guards at the gate.

The decision to go ahead with the visit has divided passengers. The ships carry some food aid, and the cruise line has pledged to donate all proceeds from the visit to help stricken Haitians. But many passengers will stay aboard when they dock; one said he was "sickened".

"I just can't see myself sunning on the beach, playing in the water, eating a barbecue, and enjoying a cocktail while [in Port-au-Prince] there are tens of thousands of dead people being piled up on the streets, with the survivors stunned and looking for food and water," one passenger wrote on the Cruise Critic internet forum.

"It was hard enough to sit and eat a picnic lunch at Labadee before the quake, knowing how many Haitians were starving," said another. "I can't imagine having to choke down a burger there now."

Some booked on ships scheduled to stop at Labadee are afraid that desperate people might breach the resort's 12ft high fences to get food and drink, but others seemed determined to enjoy their holiday. "I'll be there on Tuesday and I plan on enjoying my zip line excursion as well as the time on the beach," said one.

The company said the question of whether to "deliver a vacation experience so close to the epicentre of an earthquake" had been subject to considerable internal debate before it decided to include Haiti in its itineraries for the coming weeks.

"In the end, Labadee is critical to Haiti's recovery; hundreds of people rely on Labadee for their livelihood," said John Weis, vice-president. "In our conversations with the UN special envoy of the government of Haiti, Leslie Voltaire, he notes that Haiti will benefit from the revenues that are generated from each call. . .

"We also have tremendous opportunities to use our ships as transport vessels for relief supplies and personnel to Haiti. Simply put, we cannot abandon Haiti now that they need us most."

"Friday's call in Labadee went well," said Royal Caribbean. "Everything was open, as usual. The guests were very happy to hear that 100% of the proceeds from the call at Labadee would be donated to the relief effort."

Forty pallets of rice, beans, powdered milk, water, and canned foods were delivered on Friday, and a further 80 are due and 16 on two subsequent ships. When supplies arrive in Labadee, they are distributed by Food for the Poor, a longtime partner of Royal Caribbean in Haiti.

Royal Caribbean has also pledged $1m to the relief effort and will spend part of that helping 200 Haitian crew members.

The company recently spent $55m updating Labadee. It employs 230 Haitians and the firm estimates 300 more benefit from the market. The development has been regarded as a beacon of private investment in Haiti; Bill Clinton visited in October. Some Haitians have decried the leasing of the peninsula as effective privatisation of part of the republic's coastline.


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