On Being a Privileged Other

When I decided to join the Peace Corps in Zambia, there were of course a lot of questions. The most common ones had to do with geography: Where is Zambia? That’s in Africa, right? Can you show me on a map? Are you looking forward to serving in Zimbabwe? Or is it Gambia?

The questions that I found more intriguing and complicated were: What an incredible sacrifice, will you be ok without running water and electricity? I don’t know if I could take two years and live like the people there. How do you do it? Please don’t get raped, okay? Is it really hard being the only white person?

What was missing from these questions was the fact that me being here is a privilege and also that moving to a country that is mostly populated with black people who don’t have money does not mean that I’m all the sudden more in danger than I was in America.

It is easy to recognize that compared to the Zambians in my village, my life in America was filled with opportunity and money. That’s not interesting. The thing that keeps me up at night, the thing that I continue to experience every day in stark and unsettling and fascinating ways is the manner in which my privilege shapes how I am treated and how I live in Zambia.

I am by no means “living like the people” here. Just because I’m cooking over charcoal or going to the bathroom in a hole doesn’t mean I’m living like them. I’m living with them and I’m learning from them, but in order to live like them I wouldn’t have my own house, the government wouldn’t be paying my expenses, I would be eating a fraction of what I am now, I would probably already be married with children, and I certainly wouldn’t have white skin.

My privilege doesn’t disappear because I’m in Zambia, no matter how much I try to integrate, no matter how much I “sacrifice.” Rather, my privilege is amplified.

In Zambia, I am an other. Everything I do is a spectacle. Despite my best efforts, I will always stand out. But contrary to most people who experience otherness in the world, otherness that results in violence, abuse, and inequality, I am a privileged other. With my otherness comes respect, curiosity, and an assumption of wealth and intellect. Yes, there is inequality, but I’m on the opposite side of it. I’m benefiting. And perhaps most importantly, my otherness is temporary.

Being a privileged other in Zambia means that I always am offered a chair even if the rest of the women are sitting on the floor. It means when I go to the grocery store the security guard never checks my bag or receipt. It means when I asked my boss if I could teach math he said, “Madam, you are most welcome,” with no second thought, knowing that I didn’t have formal training. It means people yelling from their compounds, “Madam, how are you??” It means that I have to beg people to call me Emily, not Madam. It means kids at school being intimidated to greet me. It means the kids at home helping with my chores because for them, it’s an honor. It means that the community will do everything to make sure I’m comfortable and to keep me safe. It means that as soon as I leave and go home, I won’t be an other anymore.

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