We Need Better Language to Talk About Inequality

By Toubab Amouma Xaliss

Art by Julia Oborne

It’s a privilege to not get killed by the police, it’s a privilege to have a passport that allows you to travel to more than five countries visa free, it’s a privilege to have social security, it’s a privilege to not be a house servant or a sex slave, it’s a privilege to not have to migrate for a better life. We don’t all get treated the same and it’s naive to think we do, or that one day, according to current logic, we will. The whole privilege conversation is a backlash against the ‘universalising’ project; that we all have the same rights under the law, that we all have the same opportunities to get ahead, that we all have human rights. We don’t and we cannot, – at least not in this current system.  

As David Graeber pointed out in his book, Debt: The First 5000 Years, things have not changed much since we used to think we owed our lives, service and debts to a God or a King. Western countries have replaced that with the idea that we owe everything to the state. However, the state does not protect all of us, and it cannot. The state needs people to exploit, reject, and exclude in order to operate. It is the very logic of a state: us from them, which nullifies the universal human rights project. The social imaginary around this topic needs to evolve, it should lead us to stop being blinded by our own privileges and open us up to new possibilities and ways of seeing human relationships.

I’m studying in Senegal and I’ve met my fair share of white Western-minded people here who feel entitled to live like they do in their home country’s, but for cheaper. If they are charged more because they are French, or white, they are entitled to voice their injustice, and have lengthy rants later in private. I understand the haggling, but I struggle with the social imaginaries that infuse these conversations behind closed doors. I’ve had, heard, and overheard all shades of these conversations, culminating in the notion that charging more to white Westerners is reverse racism or economic discrimination! To me, this image lacks an ability to understand the conflictive social relations we put ourselves in when we travel.

It feels like the only reasons I can be in Senegal is because many people are experientially ignorant of how unjust the system is and that I can benefit from the threat of a racist state-military police force if anything goes wrong here. Of course anyone can choose to not feel angry, and to overcome this injustice and all the better for them. In the absence of action, anger is a cancer of the mind. Philosophies, cultural norms and religions can also contribute to acquiescence in the face of conflictive human relations, but a justified anger can also be transformed into a motivation to change the system. When people treat me angrily here in certain contexts because they have an intuitive feeling of injustice or they demand higher prices because I am Western, I agree with them, but I think they should be even angrier. Perhaps they are wise enough to know that individually, I am not the problem.

But I am far from innocent. I disagree that money is the best way to change things, but I prefer to agree with their perception of how to right the inequality than to impose my own view on how to right the inequality. I have traveled in India, Morocco and Mexico, and I always felt the same way. Westerners who are travelling in countries which are fiscally indebted to their countries bounce around in these countries doing whatever they want and then get angry if a local person essentially has to beg for more money for a service they are providing in their own country. Let’s also not forget that many countries such as Senegal have been economically restructured into having to rely heavily on tourism, and thus people are essentially forced to treat Westerners like kings, despite themselves and their bitterness about neocolonialism or French imperialism.

Some Westerners  – ‘toubabs’ is the word for white person in Senegal – argue that they want to be treated like Senegalese people, otherwise they feel excluded, differentiated. Perhaps if toubabs feel entitled to be treated like Senegalese people in Senegal, they should be able to live like the average Senegalese person; give up their French passports, hand over most of their money and start selling peanuts in the street, or farming in Kaolack, working for a small NGO in Casamance, or being a house servant to richer Senegalese people 6 hours a day, or migrating on a dinghy across the Mediterranean, or paying colonial taxes in the form of debt to France or the USA, or not getting three times more vacation and salary than a Senegalese person in the same company just because they are French and they might want to return to France eventually without their career and economic prospects being damaged.

These habits of imagination Westerners have are also a barrier to imagining another world, because people confuse their privileges with rights. The human rights discourse deludes them into thinking their privileges are rights. As a wise American friend recently reminded me, ”People with privilege often cannot imagine a world without that privilege, they may be so attached to their privilege that the only form of social change they will never accept are the ones where they have to give it up.” The western states have essentially taken their privileges and moulded them into legal weapons, deluding their own citizens into being comforted by the human rights gun that protects them and hurts others. To fight for and believe in human rights for everyone is essentially just to reinforce the human rights of those who are already guaranteed them due to power asymmetries. People think they deserve these rights, and they should keep fighting in the logic that everyone else should have the same rights, which is their error, since it is impossible. The current system cannot allow it.

I had a follow-up conversation with one of my French friends about this topic because he was disturbed by my point of view. He told me he has two lenses to see the world, most of the time his ‘humanist’ lens wants to see himself in relation to Senegalese people as total human equals and in turn he also deserves to be treated as a perfect equal, and sometimes his ‘conflictive’ lens recognizes that there is a violent inequality between people and his behavior contributes to this inequality, yet as much as he tries not to, the inequality is bigger than him. We cannot individually change the entire system, but I think our collective social imaginaries around these topics are important to reflect on and to understand the limits of ‘humanist’ empathy and the human rights discourse. When you have power over someone else in almost every sense of the word; economic, political, social, legal, then do you have a duty to consider the ‘conflictive’ lens much more, as unpleasant as it is? When push comes to shove, what does it mean to have the power you have, and how will you decide to engage with that power?

At the very least, all I want to say is that it is important to accept that a Senegalese person might ask someone they judge as having more money, for more money. In the end, this conversation is often about the difference between paying a few euros more. Negotiating can be a fun performance, but toubabs, don’t start complaining to me about discrimination and your god-given (now it is a state-given) human right to experience life without discrimination. Open up your ‘conflictive’ lens more often to see the reality which hangs around us, recognize the various gradients of power. The conflictive world thrusts us in relation to things we feel we have no control over, like history, state politics, war, but maybe we have more power over these elements than we like to believe. Maybe just the fact that we flew miles to get here is part of the problem. Maybe part of the problem is the fact that most development NGO’s run by Westerners are thinly veiled parasitic relationships continuing control, imperialism and debt peonage of third world countries. Not to mention the fact that the humanist lens shouldn’t even be a lens, it should be a default. Western white people shouldn’t congratulate themselves for seeing a Senegalese black person as a total human equal, that should already be obvious and be the default mode of seeing all other people. The challenge is to take the humanist default and the conflictive lens and decide what to do about these competing narratives. I challenge the reader to think of a better concept than privilege or human rights, which examines inequalities without positioning one life over another as more legitimate.

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