Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Musings from Mozambique: Acknowledging and Accepting the Benefits of Birthright


Straight from Mozambique, this insightful piece comes from Peace Corps Shannon Gopaul:

Acknowledging and accepting the benefits of birthright.

I first wanted to say that this blog is an awesome idea and I've really enjoyed all that I've read. I'm so happy to have an outlet to intelligent thought-provoking conversation in English. Here are just some things I've been thinking about since I've been working in Mozambique and I really wanted to hear some comments from you Black philosophers (J-mol????) White in America…. Black (American) in Africa…. Acknowledging and accepting the benefits of birthright. [Question: and then what???]In my journey to find myself, my peace, and purpose in the world, it's funny that my search has led me back to Africa. Even funnier is that this "return to Africa", this return to my unfamiliar "roots" has made one thing glaringly clear to me… white America. During my time here, I have been forced to acknowledge my place of birth, what it means to be an American abroad, and the inevitable bundle of opportunities that accompanied it.My nationality has placed me on a pedestal above and beyond anything I am, certainly no reflection of my flawed, complicated, insecure self. I would describe myself as a complicated being filled with love, anger, motivation, at times…laziness, pride, modesty, compassion, fear, and honesty, but this label (American) seems, in a way, to only magnify the positive within me, off-setting any sense of balance I once had by inserting new positives where negatives once existed. Despite any stereotypes, hardship, or discrimination that Blacks are forced to exist in, in the US, the connotations of Black American in Africa are: wealthy, abundance of opportunities, free ticket (for yourself and those befriending you) to instant popularity and opportunity, definition of chic/ trendsetter, trustworthy, desirable, intelligent.

It sometimes seems that my role as friend, colleague, lover would be nothing or something far more inadequate were it void of the label AmericanYou begin to doubt…. Am I intelligent, and I beautiful… a wonderful person… a good friend, a good lover??? Because it is impossible for me to be perceived devoid of this overpowering and ever-present label (American). Sometimes I just want to lie… deny myself to find myself. Rewind time, step off that plane for the first time all over again, with a new passport, new accent, new origin, same destination… just to see if my experience would be the same. I have had so much success and growth here and as much as I would like to think that's its all a direct correlation to my own personal attributes, I would be lying if I said that being American didn't provide a huge added advantage. So with this said, my experience is not that far off from the argument that most of us make about white America, with their unequal advantages and opportunities for success, for, I too, have had those. I have a brief interesting story. One night I was driving the car of a Mozambican friend of mine, who was sitting on the passenger side. One of the headlights was out so a police officer pulled me over. That alone would have led to a ticket, but even worse, I had accidentally brought the wrong license with me and the one I had said that it had expired in 2004. So I should have definitely gotten a huge fine, or at least been let off the hook by trying to bribe them, but instead, they saw that the license was issued in the \nU.S. and instantly wanted to befriend me. So yes, like many white Americans, I can even find myself occasionally above the law.So what do we do about advantages that are so blatantly not related to merit, but rather something as random as the country you were born in or the color of your skin? This is a question that I feel is so important for us as black intellectuals to tackle if we care about equality, our success, and the well-being of our future generations.

It sometimes seems that my role as friend, colleague, lover would be nothing or something far more inadequate were it void of the label AmericanYou begin to doubt…. Am I intelligent, and I beautiful… a wonderful person… a good friend, a good lover??? Because it is impossible for me to be perceived devoid of this overpowering and ever-present label (American). Sometimes I just want to lie… deny myself to find myself. Rewind time, step off that plane for the first time all over again, with a new passport, new accent, new origin, same destination… just to see if my experience would be the same. I have had so much success and growth here and as much as I would like to think that's its all a direct correlation to my own personal attributes, I would be lying if I said that being American didn't provide a huge added advantage. So with this said, my experience is not that far off from the argument that most of us make about white America, with their unequal advantages and opportunities for success, for, I too, have had those. I have a brief interesting story. One night I was driving the car of a Mozambican friend of mine, who was sitting on the passenger side. One of the headlights was out so a police officer pulled me over. That alone would have led to a ticket, but even worse, I had accidentally brought the wrong license with me and the one I had said that it had expired in 2004. So I should have definitely gotten a huge fine, or at least been let off the hook by trying to bribe them, but instead, they saw that the license was issued in the U.S. and instantly wanted to befriend me. So yes, like many white Americans, I can even find myself occasionally above the law.So what do we do about advantages that are so blatantly not related to merit, but rather something as random as the country you were born in or the color of your skin? This is a question that I feel is so important for us as black intellectuals to tackle if we care about equality, our success, and the well-being of our future generations.

Acknowledging birthright… and then what?:First I must acknowledge my general theory on how someone should live their life, and it is based on a modern philosophical theory that no human life shall be wasted. It is each person\'s duty to themselves and society to reach their greatest potential. With that said, there are two choices after acknowledging birthright and the truth behind it. One can either accept their advantage, take it as the random luck of life, and build on it or one can make deliberate attempts to reject it by not taking advantage of the implicit benefits of birthright. For example, a white person with family/friend business connections can choose to apply to jobs in the regular applicant pool, or better yet, since he cannot escape his color, make the world blind to his color, or truly escape all of the benefits of being white in America, he can have a child with a black person to ensure that the cycle is broken for the future generation of his own family. But seriously now, who would want to do that? Who would want to willingly give up advantages much less the advantages of their offspring? So what is the alternative then? Do we just accept that this is the way things are? Should I continue to reap the benefits of being American in Mozambique, knowing that there are deserving Mozambicans that are being denied social and job opportunities because of my benefits? I guess I could (and white people in America) just ride the wave of benefits to the top and make efforts to prove that I also deserve it.\nOkay, well these are just lots of scattered thoughts and I\'m definitely wondering about what other people think. Inequality is obvious, that life is unfair is obvious but what is the solution, if any??

6 comments:

Brother Spotless said...

While Shannon clearly wants to be the best lover she can be ;), I have heard this argument before. In general, this is what I gather: while Black Americans have been persecuted in the U.S, it doesn't match the horrors that occur in Africa. Also, Black Americans still live in America, and are blessed with fortunes and opportunities that blacks in other nations (especially Africa) don't recieve. It usually goes a step further than Shannon took it, sounding something like "Blacks need to get off it and realize that they have it good in America." While I don't agree with the "get off it" statement, in many ways I do agree with the rest.

This reminds me of my senior year at Williams when it was claimed over the BSU Listserver that blacks have a horrible existence at Williams. Somehow, I just didn't see our existence as "horrible" (shocking!). Maybe most people didn't understand us fully, but we made it through just fine. So, I can logically understand the African belief that we "got it made" here in the States.

I have a cousin who DJ's around the world, and the one thing he tells me (like Shannon said) is that people want to be like us; they see us on TV (mostly music videos) and believe us to be "cool" or "hip" or whatever you want to call it. If you believe him, we definitely have a grip on trends and pop culture in a way that no other minority group (I say minority to describe amounts of people in a country, not necessarily ethnicity)has before. Now if we can use that grip to do something positive for our community...

That's not to say that it is our moral responsibility to use this new found power to better our people. That is to say that when any other political or ethnic group gains more power, they use it to their groups' advantage. Can we do the same?

Brother Lightness said...

Brother Spotless,
I am of respectful and dissenting opinion with about half of what you wrote, but feel especially pressed to sound off on your closing: "That is to say that when any other political or ethnic group gains more power, they use it to their groups' advantage. Can we do the same?" American history proves that we have already done the same.

I've never been one for making grand, sweeping generalizations, so Brother Spootless' comment troubles me a bit. To say that "any other political or ethnic group" aside from blacks, uses its acquired power to its respective "advantage" is a fallacy.

This comment is far too "Cosby-esque" (see Bill Cosby's comments on the state of Black America) in it's tone and gives blacks little or no credit for the plethora of historical progressive action taken in our struggle for advancement. It's no secret that the Black Americans' history, as well as that of Blacks all over the world, has been one of constant struggle. Considering the seemingly universal law that the darker your skin is the more difficult your life should be, Blacks in different regions face different degrees of struggle.

Perhaps the single most important reason the Black Americans' struggle cannot be compared to that of our African counterparts is because of the progress acquired in America during the civil rights movement of the 60's. Simply, we face a different, seemingly incomporable, situation because of the progress that has already been made.

This point isn't made to imply that we have "overcome", as the old Negro spiritual implies, rather, it suggests that we are at a different stage in our seemingly endless struggle.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for all of your useful comments. However, I think I need to clarify a few of my thoughts. When I wrote this, I was really thinking about the idea of equality and how birthright (race, nationality, gender) can lead to inequality. I was just trying to show that these questions of inequality (rooted in something totally out of one's control...race) that plague Black Americans is an issue that far exceeds the borders of this country. Birthright is something that has benefitted ME abroad, even though being born in the US is no real reflection of my merit or desert.

So if our goal is to uplift the race to Equality or perhaps even a position that surpasses whites, then we must address these issues. And we cannot ask whites in America to push for equality and lose their unfair advantages through policies like affirmative action without acknowleging that we are granted these same unfair advantages abroad (although now its based on accent and citizenship vs skin color).

But maybe the more important question is... Is Equality a realistic concept? If so, is it fair to ask people to give up their random/unfair birth advantages?

I have to admit that the motivation behind my work is to improve the standing and lives of blacks across the globe, regardless of whether or not the end status is greater or equal to that of whites.

Brother Spotless said...

My Light Borhter,
I do apologize; as I read, the statements I made are too general and I was also unclear about my point. To say that all other groups make good on their power is too general and to insinuate that blacks haven't made good is to negate the Civil Rights movement of the 60's and the Hip Hop movement of the 90's. So allow me clarify.
I recognize that we have made positive steps in American society, law, business, etc. As Lightness correctly noted, our current struggle is just a different one. I wanted to express my concern that there hasn't been much done by the Hip Hop generation to capitalize on this new power. Thoughts?

Brother Tallness said...

quick question about the hip-hop generation?

Are we saying that the hip hop generation encompasses all blacks under a certain age cut off point?

or, that those who consume hip hop (music, clothing, etc) are likely to be in the same boat value wise?

I don't think either of those definitions equals a solid constituency. It's been (unsuccesfully) tried before; I think it's time that we stop fooling ourselves that merging popular culture with politics works.

Brother Spotless said...

I understand the Hip Hop culture to be more than just a part of pop culture. It is our culture. It is the environment we live in and the expressions that come out of it (all the arts, political viewpoint, etc). I truly believe that our generation has carved out a culture separate from our parents, and definitely something different from what had ever been on the landscape before.