07 Nov 2014 Going Global: An Observation of Privilege
To the avid travelers, frequent movers, nomads, and vagabonds in this world, acquiring the necessary visas before a trip is pretty standard. As the Million Ways to Live project draws near, I too have had to spend a decent amount of effort on this very subject. We are planning to visit over 30 countries over the next year, and of course, some of them require visa prior to arrival.
This is the interesting bit: when I tell my friends about the visa process, I encounter 2 distinct reactions. Both contain a bit of surprise, but one is coupled with lament, the other envy. To my U.S. friends, the common response was “Oh yeah, I never thought about that” followed by “that must be tiresome”. They were sharing in my supposed discontent over obtaining these documents, which I didn’t really feel. All in all, I only needed to get three visas: Brazil, India, and China. This to me seems enormously convenient, but as I learned, it’s all very relative. To many people I know, particularly ones who haven’t been to a country with a visa requirement, it seems cumbersome to even need to get one. To quote my friend, “if you think about it, it’s all just made up by people.”
On the other hand, when I tell my Indian friends about the visas I need to get, the overwhelming reaction is “you only need three?!” To them, visa application is a laborious process, since they need to get one for almost every country they wish to visit. One jokingly said, “If I were to try this, some of my visas would expire before I actually got all of them”. This is the reality for the vast majority of people in this world. To the billions of Asians, Latin Americans, Arabs, and Africans, traveling isn’t as simple as buying an airline ticket and having a “can-do” attitude. There are enormous difficulties getting into some countries, and the processes are often as insulting as they are arbitrary.
The topic of “White Privilege” has been on people’s minds lately. To me, beyond just White Privilege (or White Heterosexual Male Privilege, to be specific), there is also such a thing as “First World Privilege” that we all share. While White Privilege is a phenomenon easily observable in the U.S. due to our enormous racial diversity, First World Privilege is something that can only be seen on a global scale. It can be invisible to citizens of the First World the same way White Privilege can seem non-existent to white people. If you’ve only traveled as a First World citizen, especially if only to other First World nations, likely you’ve never really encountered it. It’s reasonable to expect to arrive at Customs and receive a stamp on the passport. That’s the norm, the status quo. Truth is, it isn’t.
Now, border controls and custom checks – inconvenient and unreasonable as they usually are – obviously exist for a reason. I’m certainly not saying they shouldn’t be there. But I am saying that if you ever need evidence of privilege, go to one and see how people from different countries get treated upon arrival. The meaning of privilege, to me, is that by being a member of a certain group, you automatically, through no necessary merit of your own, get access to things that are either very difficult or flat out impossible to obtain for members outside of that group. We, as citizens of the United States, enjoy a huge amount of privileges when traveling, and for the most part we’re oblivious to it.
If you need more evidence, think about this: as a U.S. citizen, out of the 195 sovereign states in this world, you can visit 174 of them without obtaining a visa prior to arrival. The only other nations with that kind of travel freedom are U.K., Germany, Sweden, and Finland, all European. Falling a bit behind is Japan, with 172 countries. If you are an Indian citizen, that number goes down to 52, while Chinese citizens have only 45. Think about that for a second. You can be anyone from the United States: black, white, rich, poor, it doesn’t matter. As long as you have a valid passport, 174 countries will open their doors to you, basically hassle free. On the flip side, if you’re Indian or Pakistani, you can win the Nobel Peace Prize, but before you can claim it, you first need a trip to the Swedish consulate. Privileges are very real, but they are also subtle, especially to the privileged. We enjoy them everyday, usually unaware that things can be different. I don’t think we need to feel guilty, but we certainly should feel #blessed.