I sometimes have to stop and think about how lucky I am. I am probably luckier than 99.5% of the world’s population. It blows my mind.
I am white, straight, educated, middle-class – a woman, yes, but from a Western country which pretty much guarantees there is no significant difference between sexes. (Not like, say Saudi-Arabia or India.) What’s even better is that I’m not from just any Western country – I’m from Finland! My passport is officially one of the most powerful in the world, and thanks to all-levels free education, I am debt-free. I am able-bodied to the extent that I don’t even have any allergies. I don’t even get motion sick!
I am not saying any of these things to brag. It is just to showcase just how lucky I am.
Now, for the past few weeks I have been watching my bank account with growing alarm as the funds steadily shrink. First it was the expensive flights back home from South America; then the unexpectedly expensive tours I did in Bonito; then the deposit for my new, all-too-expensive apartment that I’m not even going to live in for the next two months but which I had to accept in the face of a very real fear that otherwise I would not find a place to live by the time I got home.
My parents promised to pay for my rent for the time when I’m not living there yet and not receiving my usual student aid. Add two privilege points for those.
Living in Brazil has absolutely demolished my funds as I have throughout the past six months struggled to find freelance work, occasionally taking on some transcription work which with my slow typing and shaking fingers is absolutely not worth the money considering the amount of time I spend doing it – but it is money, all right. I am currently in Pantanal, yearning for the next Sunday when I get to fly to Bolivia which, as I’ve heard, is one of the cheapest countries in South America. I am desperate to save some money. However, I would never describe myself as poor.
Sure, I might have said it a few times, playfully, as a friend invites me to go to some event or restaurant or tour that I know in my rational mind I shouldn’t do… But then I tag along anyway, thinking that the translation assignment I completed last week totally makes up for the cost of the thing. But lately, calling myself poor even playfully has started to make me feel uncomfortable. If I have to say no, I’ll rather say: ‘Sorry, I have to save some money’, or ‘I haven’t got paid yet, I don’t have the money right now’.
The age-old wisdom is that if I can afford to travel for leisure, I am already ten times richer than the majority of people in the world. Even if I was living on cup noodles and too broke to get that busted zipper on my backpack fixed – I still have this opportunity that most people could never even dream of. Hell, some people don’t even have enough to feed themselves and their children every night. Why am I complaining about eating cup noodles again?
I have spent the last six months living and travelling in Brazil, doing a student exchange in the southernmost state of the country. The south, in general, is considered to be a lot richer than the north, but the same problems that are prevalent all throughout Brazil are still visible there: poverty, violent crime, low standards of life. I have friends who work twelve hours a day, just to go to classes afterwards and wade back home just before midnight to catch six hours of sleep before heading back to work again in the morning. I have friends who lived in apartments where they could only afford to furnish one room and never managed to get the toilet fixed after it broke. Some people I met love Brazil with patriotic passion; some are constantly dreaming of a better life in Europe, the USA, Australia, anywhere but there.
And while I adore Brazil, I have often wondered about the impact of my words when I declare my love for the country because everything that’s wrong with it doesn’t have a direct effect on me. Sure, I might fall victim to a crime, but I can leave the country whenever I want. If I run out of money, my loving parents will send me more. Half of my minimum wage is not robbed by high taxes, just to end up in the back pocket of some corrupt politician while I wonder why I can’t get cheap education or decent health care even when the state is supposed to take care of those. I love Brazil and I don’t think any amount of bad news could change it; but I also acknowledge that as a visitor – even a long-term one – my experience is wildly different from someone who lives in the country.
The fact that I can travel the world while some people can’t doesn’t make me feel particularly guilty. I don’t think it should. I was born with my privilege, and the only way to get rid of it would be what? To cripple myself and become a homeless meth addict? To some people, privilege seems to be a curse word; it’s the new, trendy ‘white man’s guilt’. However, having privilege does not automatically make you a worse person and you should not treat it like an offense. The sole existence of privilege depends on inequality in society, but a one-person war against their own privilege is not going to change the deeply rooted structure that stems from a long history of humankind. If anything, raging against your own privilege will just cause you unnecessary guilt and misery, and in addition make you look foolish – being able to pine over having privilege is probably the most privileged thing you could do, while others would give up everything – the little they have – to have half of the benefits you have.
Having privilege is not a bad thing. It is either something you were born with or a status you achieved with your own hard work. However, it is not a cause for celebration either; quite simply, it just is. The most important thing is to acknowledge your own privilege and how that sets you apart from those that don’t have it. It doesn’t mean that your life is perfect or you’re not allowed to complain or feel pain or dream of something better – just because you were dealt slightly better cards than somebody else, doesn’t mean you’re always lucky in the game. Just acknowledge the privilege you have and consider what it means to you. Don’t take the life you have for granted. Be humble and understand, why you are able to do what you do. Reconsider idiotic catchphrases like ‘Anyone can travel!’ or ‘Money doesn’t buy happiness!’ and promptly toss them in the trash.
Like they say: it’s not what you have, it’s what you do with it. Ask questions. Educate yourself. Make friends from all walks of life. Question your position in the world. Don’t abuse your privilege and don’t act condescending towards people who don’t have it. With the information you have, ask yourself: what can I do to improve the situation? How can I use my voice to others’ advantage? How can I make the world a little bit more of an equal place?
Here’s your keys – is your car a Ferrari or a beat-up old Buick? Whatever it is, drive safe. Good luck.
Thanks for reading! I’ve been incredibly busy for the past week invariably partying and sleeping as I prepared to leave the city I sort of called home for the past five months. Now I’m back on the road and more excited than I remember being in a long while. I have timed some posts for you guys so you don’t miss me too much when I disappear back into the folds of a backpacker’s life, but if you’d like more recent updates, you can follow me on Instagram (elinandro) or Facebook (link on the right column). Apparently wifi in Bolivia is absolutely tragic, so hopefully I will still manage to update…