People of Color with Western Privilege #Dispatch: Pooja Makhijani

I’VE BEEN CHATTING with travel writers, activists and personalities of color about their experiences navigating the media industry and the globe with an intersectional lens, while exploring themes like power, privilege, place, and identity, themes that are rarely touched on in the mainstream travel space. Read previous #Dispatches here.

Pooja Makhijani writes children's books, essays, and articles, and also develops educational media and curricula. Her bylines have appeared in The New York Times, the Village Voice, The Rumpus, Serious Eats, Paste Magazine, Quartz, The Washington Post, Lucky Peach, and The Los Angeles Book Review (forthcoming). Find her online home at poojamakhijani.com.
Pooja Makhijani writes children’s books, essays, and articles, and also develops educational media and curricula. Her bylines have appeared in The New York Times, the Village Voice, The Rumpus, Serious Eats, Paste Magazine, Quartz, The Washington Post, Lucky Peach, and The Los Angeles Book Review (forthcoming). Find her online home at poojamakhijani.com.

Bani Amor: Tell us where you’re from, where you are now, and how you got from one to the other.

Pooja Makhijani: I’m a South Asian American woman, born in New York City and raised in suburban New Jersey, now living in Singapore. My partner and I moved here in 2010 when he was offered an opportunity in Asia; I continue to write, edit, and teach — my background is in early childhood education and children’s media — here in Singapore.

Bani: Would you consider yourself an expat, or is that term unavailable to people of color?

Pooja: As an American (Westerner), I think, in some instances I may be considered an “expat” in Singapore. And my Western privilege allows me to claim it should I want to. I definitely think the term is less, if at all, available to my friends and colleagues from other Asian countries (Philippines, China, India, etc.). However, I agree, generally, “expat” in the Singapore context is a term reserved for professional white Westerners and professional Japanese and, *maybe*, professional Korean workers in Singapore. That being said, we are not immigrants to Singapore and we intend to return to the United States. I suppose “economic migrant” is the best term for people like us.

Bani: These distinctions always seem implied in media and everyday language. Recently I’ve noticed more journalists writing about the importance of making distinctions, questioning implicit bias or at least agreeing that the current vocabulary to name our place in these migrations is insufficient.

Pooja: Yes! I always remember this exchange between two of my favorite writers. Both Cole and Lalami address exactly these language contortions in their works.*

Bani: I decided a while ago that to be an expat means to hold privilege in the trifecta of class, race and place. Acknowledging that to be POC does not mean there isn’t a racial hierarchy at work with us (obvs).

Pooja: I totally agree! But my “place” — as evidenced by my U.S. passport and accent — gives me such incredible power and proximity to whiteness in a way that I would never have conceived of had I not moved overseas! As I detail in this essay, it has given me tremendous advantages over other people who “look like me” but hold different passports and/or have different accents.

For example, it is very common — and legal — for landlords to advertise empty rental units with the words: “no Indians, no PRCs [People’s Republic of China]”, sometimes followed by the word “sorry”. We have been asked where we were born, where our families live, whether we had an arranged marriage (WTF?), etc. But the minute we were able to produce our passport and to show that he (my partner) held a position in a U.S. company, the micro- and macroagressions ceased and we were able to find a roof over our heads.

I’ve heard story after story from Indian friends from India who are rejected from apartment after apartment, despite their privileged class. Another example: if I walk into a swanky bar/restaurant/retail space, I am sometimes ignored by staff. (I’m a t-shirt/jeans/flats/no makeup/no jewelry kinda gal). But if I put on my best loud, friendly American twang, I received better service. I hadn’t traveled much outside of the U.S. until my mid-20s, and then only to to Europe, so I had no idea of this concept—Western privilege.

“Some arrivals are described as expats; others as immigrants; and some simply as migrants. It depends on social class, country of origin and economic status. It’s strange to hear some people in Hong Kong described as expats, but not others. Anyone with roots in a western country is considered an expat … Filipino domestic helpers are just guests, even if they’ve been here for decades. Mandarin-speaking mainland Chinese are rarely regarded as expats … It’s a double standard woven into official policy.” Who is an expat, anyway?’ WSJ

I’m also glad that U.S. activists of color, e.g. Son of Baldwin, etc., are finally talking about Western privilege and the interconnectedness of various social justice struggles. It’s weird to go to into a world with “proximity-to-white privilege” when you’ve never been on that side of the fence before!

Bani: Yup, which is why a lot of USian POC can’t conceive of this privilege yet, and often deny that they hold any privilege at all.

Pooja: Yes. Totally.

Bani: But I wanna back it up. In your article you mentioned, you talked about being radicalized and embracing POC community in the age of Bush, and in relocating to Singapore, there was an excitement about moving away from “white systems,” but once you got there, you were like, “Oh.” Something James Baldwin said comes to mind: “I found myself…alchemized into an American the moment I touched French soil.”

Pooja: Yes, that Baldwin quote! I really need to go read him again now that I live overseas! I think USian POC are taught to only think of their struggles in the context of white supremacy in the U.S., which is, in and of itself, problematic because it doesn’t examine U.S. imperialism and our complicity in so much global oppression. It’s good ol’ American Exceptionalism at work, and even progressive folks like me are sometimes so unaware of these entrenched biases. My experiences thus far had led me think that I would only experience “real” discrimination in majority-white settings, and my education had not prompted me to question this provincial world view.

“An expatriate (often shortened to expat) is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than that of the person’s upbringing. The word comes from the Latin terms ex (‘out of’) and patria (‘country, fatherland’).” Wikipedia

Bani: I wonder if you’ve found balance in acknowledging your US privilege but also facing some discrimination for your ethnicity in Singapore.

Pooja: I think about this all the time. I’m not sure. I’m more aware of the ways in which I *can* wield my “power,” but actively choose not to. As I’ve written, people completely shift in their interactions with me when they hear my accent! They are kinder and more obsequious often. I’ve been referred to as “not that kind of Indian.”

Bani: Right. That’s real.

Pooja: Because, again my proximity to whiteness has somehow “civilized” me. Without which, I would be a “savage,” right?

Bani: You and I and the folks you’ve brought up in this talk have all come to acknowledge western privilege only by spending a considerable amount of time outside of white majority or ‘first world’ countries. How do we get others who don’t (can’t) leave to acknowledge this, or is it necessary for them to?

Pooja: Yes, it’s absolutely necessary. How else can we (POC) understand the interconnectedness of various global social justice struggles and find true solidarity against white supremacy? And I think we fail our progressivism if we aren’t willing to point out that we have the *same* power to oppress depending on the circumstance.

My personal challenge is now finding meaningful actions. How do I use this knowledge and power in the service of those without? Writing is all well and good, but I’m an “action” person!

“Africans are immigrants. Arabs are immigrants. Asians are immigrants. However, Europeans are expats because they can’t be at the same level as other ethnicities. They are superior. Immigrants is a term set aside for ‘inferior races’.” Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants? The Guardian

Bani: Have you met a lot of other expats (or economic migrants, refugees, immigrants, etc.) of color in Singapore?

Pooja: Yes. Of Singapore’s 5.2 million residents, 3.7 million are Citizens or Permanent Residents (PRs). Non-residents (economic migrants of all classes) are working, studying or living in Singapore on a non-permanent basis. The large number of non-Citizens here has become a huge political issue for a country as small as Singapore. Foreigners are, as they are in other countries, accused of diluting national identity, “taking away jobs,” etc. Local activists continue to be be alarmed by the surge of racism and xenophobia in recent years. The issue is complex, but here is *some* background by a friend. So, in short, yes, I do know lots of foreigners in Singapore, and many Westerners of color. I do know a lot of non-White (I hate that term!) expatriates in Singapore as well.

Bani: Do they share the same politics as you?

Pooja: I suss out people who share my politics, I think. I will say that many of my close USian friends in Singapore are POC. Many of us have had similar experiences. On the flip side, my Chinese American acquaintances benefit from both racial and place-ial privilege in a city like Singapore. Some of them are quite aware of this, especially those who are fluent in Mandarin, for example, but others aren’t.

There was data recently collected – by WSJ, I think – about the races/ethnicities and nationalities of “expats” in Asia. The data concluded that what people generally think of as “expat” – white, male, on a company package, in company housing, with company car – doesn’t hold true as it used to. And that new migrants tend to be younger and either from other countries in Asia and/or Asian Westerners. As the world moves in this way, I think these ideas of Western privilege deeply come into play. And we have to talk about it.

“Want to make friends? Move to another country. Maybe somewhere third world. Expats tend to be adventurous, to be risk-takers. After all, they’ve already left their friends, their homes, their comfort zones and probably most of their possessions in another country to begin a new life abroad. That takes guts. It’s only a certain type of person who’ll do that.” What we could all learn from expats Traveller

Bani: Of the people of color who spend a considerable amount of time outside white majority ‘developed’ countries who acknowledge and question relationships between power and place, they usually come from a place of already having politics that challenge white supremacy. But the majority of poc who travel from these white majority countries for leisure or study or savior tourism or as expats, don’t seem to give a shit.

Pooja: Do you think they revel in their newfound privilege? I seem to think so now.

Bani: There seems to be a kind of aspiration to taste that place privilege for as long as possible, without examining power dynamics in adopted countries. When you talk about Asian Westerners, do you recognize that?

Pooja: Absolutely. And there are definitely people willing to examine those power dynamics, and those who will happily oppress despite knowing.

Bani: I think the latter is enjoying a moment right now. When I do see these nuances in privilege and place addressed with some justice it’s almost exclusively in literature, mostly novels. Even outside the travel space with personal essays and memoir that touch on this, it seems to be very superficial. I was wondering where you go to to see these issues fleshed out.

Pooja: I agree that travel and “expat” media is still centered around whiteness and Westernness, and so far from addressing privilege and place. I like social media—Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook as that is where so many social justice conversations are happening (at least in English)—and try to follow activists who are involved in actions in their parts of the world. I think, as you rightly note above, novelists like Laila Lailami and Teju Cole are addressing some of these issues in their writing. Where do you go, Bani?

[noted white guy whiteguysplains it all:]

“It is much easier for someone from the United States to work or retire in Costa Rica than for someone from Costa Rica to do the same in the United States. But that’s because the US government created this obstacle for Ticos by requiring a visa, which Costa Rica doesn’t require of US citizens. It isn’t an “outdated supremacist ideology” which labels white people living in a foreign country as expats and all others as immigrants; it’s governments. Simple as that.” The difference between expats and immigrants? It’s passports, not race PanAm Post

Bani: This is why I started this conversation series, because I don’t see it addressed, not with this language or analysis in this space or context. Like we’ve both said, social media and literature (and the academy, perhaps) are where these issues are being deeply examined.

Pooja: Even online (in English social media), I find the conversation often centered around U.S.-specific concerns. Global hashtags tend to be U.S.-created; when was the last time you saw U.S. activist POC en masse advocate for a foreign social justice struggle?

Bani: It’s true. So how do we extend the dialogue?

Pooja: For one, we—U.S.ian POC who have this power—need to listen and not dominate the conversation. We tell white people *exactly this* all the time; we need to walk the walk. I’ve seen, online, U.S. POC get defensive and or derail conversations or talk about “intent” when they are called out for their biases, instead of apologizing and sitting with their thoughts. We have to do better.

Bani: Absolutely.

*Tweets used with permission by both Lalami and Cole

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3 thoughts on “People of Color with Western Privilege #Dispatch: Pooja Makhijani”

  1. I’ve been dying to have this conversation! I sometimes wonder if I’m being the privileged pessimist when I’m acknowledging and bringing up topics that can ruin a “good,” fancy dinner. Having moved from a white majority country (from a working class Af/Am & Caribbean background) to a black majority country where people are either extremely poor or extremely wealthy- I can find myself threaded into a matrix of different levels of privilege or not throughout the week depending on who I’m around, whether I’m speaking/ how I’m speaking/ the dialect of the language I’m speaking, style of dress, how I hold my knife and fork, mannerisms/ facial expressions, etc. White supremacy is still culturally valued vis-a-vis proximity to global whiteness and Portuguese-ness, in particular. With that, there are ways I may have systemic privilege but not social privilege while in this country. As mentioned in the article, access and distribution of privilege for western PoC definitely exist on a spectrum. It also depends on the type of traveler you are – if one *lives* *works* and *plays* with the people from that culture, they’ll gain closer insight into the way privilege operates at different levels. So much of this interview spoke to me. Such such important work. I look forward to following this blog and continuing the conversation. Peace

    1. “I can find myself threaded into a matrix of different levels of privilege or not throughout the week depending on who I’m around, whether I’m speaking/ how I’m speaking/ the dialect of the language I’m speaking, style of dress, how I hold my knife and fork, mannerisms/ facial expressions, etc.”

      Exactly, what we’re talking about are the nuances in privilege and identity that we choose to claim or disclose at times and not at others, it’s these thousand different choices that we make consciously or subconsciously depending on the situation, choices that we have to make regardless, but choices that should be made with an educated awareness of the history that endows us with these options while denying others the same, an awareness of the seemingly small powers we hold (or don’t) in certain spaces, and an awareness of how that effects others, that how we choose to wield power has consequences for those without. It’s these very small things we may not notice that matter because, surprise! Privilege. That’s what makes these conversations so important. From one fun-ruiner to another, thanks for engaging!

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