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August 17, 2017

Is “Privilege” a Bad Word?

I have been working as a nurse in East Africa now for three months.

During this experience, I have been immersed in rural communities, living as they do—with no plumbing, running water, electricity, or internet.

I was more than happy to live like this because I wanted to try and understand the lives of my patients, and I knew that I was going to receive a wake-up call about how privileged the life I lead in Canada truly is.

But this wake-up call was not served to me by the community I worked with as I initially thought it would be. It was the tourists that I grew to detest that made me reflect on what it means to be white in this globalized world.

I took my weekends as an opportunity to take a vacation from the bed bugs that lived in my sheets and to continue my quest for a hot shower. During these trips, I would go to museums, pay for nature hikes, spend the day at a resort pool, or partake in other typical mzungu tourist activities.

These were the only moments during my time in East Africa that I was surrounded by other foreigners. Their bubble of safety kept them far from my work and village unless they felt brave enough to venture out for a genuine experience at the market or pay a significant amount of money to track gorillas.

On these weekend trips, I was immersed in the lifestyle of the one percent. I would sit on benches and observe them, pick apart their behaviour and demeanour, desperately search for any way that I could differentiate myself from them.

They came in luxury safari vehicles, and I sensed that they felt it was an accomplishment to be in Africa as a white person. It was as if they had landed in an uncharted, barbaric land and doing so spoke to their sense of adventure, bank account balance, and ability to travel “authentically.”

My workdays showed me how rare privilege is in this world and my weekends displayed how the few who have it are unaware and waste it.

Seeing this made me sick but it forced me to take ownership of my privilege and realize how inescapable it is.

Being here in this drastically new environment has taught me that you need to work with the things that make you uncomfortable—you grow from the friction.

And just as I have a new appreciation for things that have always been in my life—such as hot showers, toilets, food availability, and bug-free beds—I want to learn how to be grateful for the privilege that is inherent to me.

I am a white, university educated Canadian; I cannot run away from that.

I want to believe that being privileged does not make you a bad person. It is out of your control.

I was born into it.

And at the end of the day, rejecting my privilege will not make me a better person. I want to use my status in society to help others, and this cannot be done if I am concerned with how my privilege affects others’ perception of me or if I opt to view myself as an equal—which I am not.

Privilege does not need to be a bad word; the dirtiness associated with privilege comes when individuals are ignorant or try to fight it.

Acknowledge your privilege—and do something with it.

~

Author: Taylor Peters 
Image: Author’s Own
Editor: Leah Sugerman
Copy Editor: Sara Kärpänen
Social Editor: Danielle Beutell

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Taylor Peters