This paragraph by Boima sums up much of what’s exciting right now in cross-Atlantic cultural collisions. Click ALL the links and then go see the original post on Africa is a Country for Boima’s remix of Old Money’s Mothership:
This new American pan-Africanism might not always be explicit. It is summed up by the appearance of a South Bronx-raised Moroccan-born gangster rapper, a pair of Seattle-bred Somali-pirate-trap rappers, of a couple of Azonto-ing Jamaican Dancehall superstars, and an Afrobeats-ing Trinidadian Soca monarch. It’s the pan-Africanism of Yasiin Bey and Young Guru in Capetown, of Rick Ross in Nigeria, of Beyonce and Chimamanda’s feminism, of Kanye West and D-Banj’s Oliver Twist, and of Solange’s everything. It is that essay on Afropolitanism, and all the ones refuting it. It is returnees, and ‘just comes’, and heritage tourists, and DNA tests. It’s mediated through capitalism, and immigration, and the Internet, and young people, and style and fashion. Many actors in this new pan-Africanism may not claim their place in it, however by not acknowledging it, it is left open to become a vessel for anyone else to insert a political pan-Africanism inside.
On Friday, in response to my post Power. Networks. over at the New Context, Liberian writer Stephanie Horton asked some good questions on Twitter:
— Stephanie Horton (@ducorwriter) March 14, 2014
In response, I removed the words “defining feature” in my post. This was valid because what I am actually writing about is just my life in Liberia. A privileged expat life.
I responded on Twitter
@ducorwriter and yes, the defining feature of living in Liberia for expats is a truly terrible form of white privilege. Soul warping.— Ⓐaron Leaf (@aaronleaf) March 14, 2014
@aaronleaf But very few expats name this, or write seriously about it. Here & there a few sentences on blogs. What does this say & tell us?— Stephanie Horton (@ducorwriter) March 14, 2014
I said I’d give it some thought. Here goes:
The kind of privilege a young Western expat is handed when he or she arrives in Liberia is all encompassing. It permeates every social situation, every movement through the city by taxi or private car. Every interaction with the Liberian state and the private sector.
For many, it’s intoxicating.
For some, like myself, whose identity back home exists somewhere on the margins of whiteness, whose racial privileges feels, at times provisional (but still very real of course), the rigid hierarchy of expat privilege in Liberia can be destabilizing.
I’ve discussed this with NGO friends and colleagues over the years. For some, especially people of color, who started-off doing social justice work back home, the expat life becomes intolerable and they have to leave. I remember the words of a Canadian colleague a long time ago. “Back home I was working class and Filipino but here I’m a rich white man.”
Other expats simply embrace the privilege. Some are openly racist and contemptuous. Many simply don’t have the words to describe it.
About five years ago or so, the internet was awash in blogs along the lines of “Larry in Liberia” or “Allison in Africa.” It was a good way to see how a wide range of expat-types saw themselves from evangelical christians, quantitative research interns and the social enterprise set, to 19-year-old senior economics advisors.
What I got from this, and other interactions, is that people use very different vocabularies when it comes to describing what they’re doing: from “mission trips” to “technical consulting” to “post-traumatic dance therapist.”
Whatever they call it, the “mission” often acts as a kind of lead weight on a moral equivalency scale. Like, "the hierarchies I’m perpetuating are just not as important as the valuable development work I’m doing." If they even have the wherewithal to think about that. Many don’t. Five years ago I was in this group.
Of course, most of what I know is the NGO sector, both secular and Christian. Mostly young people. But there’s also the Lebanese and South Asian merchant class. There’s also the “repats,” Liberians, and American-born Liberians who’ve recently returned to work in government or open a business. My non-profit friends who have lived there the longest socialize with these groups over the transient intern-class.
Then there’s the extractive industry types. Besides a handful of small-time gold and diamond miners—In January I met a self-professed “hipster diamond miner”—I’ve almost never interacted with these people, but I know they’re there: Oil//Timber/Palm Oil types eating the 20 dollar brunch at the Royal Hotel.
Regarding the question “why don’t we hear more about white privilege in expat life?” I don’t really have an answer except to say I think most people can’t really describe it. One of the key traits of privilege, I think, may be its invisibility to the people that have it.