17 April 2010

Unpacking the Invisible Consumer (American) Knapsack

I thought I understood privilege. Of course, I write this statement with the understanding that power, and thus privilege, is strongest when it is invisible. That the moment you think you know privilege, or even think you have some tiny understanding of it, is the moment it will be bite you in the ass. For the privileges you benefit from the most are also the ones most hidden from you- in that case, consider me bitten.

My major at school is “Critical Theory and Social Justice” which, I know, is a pretty illusive title. I cringe every time someone asks me what major I am and hate myself for not being able to come up with a good answer to this question after two years. But, if I could give an eloquent answer, I would say that my major attempts to understand systems of privilege, power, and oppression and how they manifest themselves in the form of racism, sexism, colonialism, etc. These are all concepts I thought I came to Thailand with a fairly good grasp on.

I came here with a preconceived notion of how power would operate in this situation. I had contemplated the paradigm of Westerners coming to a “developing” nation- tourism as the newest form of colonialism. I feared for how my group of American students would be perceived- as Westerners coming and to impart our “superior knowledge” on “less developed” people. This was the power dynamic I had set up in my head, and thus I shied away from comments that I thought romanticized or objectified the villagers’ way of life we were witnessing. But, I myself had one of these moments recently- when I found myself wishing to stop development in its tracks.

Walking into the main mall here in Khon Kaen, Thailand, I was greeted by an old friend, new to the area: Starbucks. It was the one mark of development I hadn’t seen here: first come the McDonalds, then the Dairy queens, and finally the Starbucks. Seeing this companies appearance in the Northeast of Thailand (one of the most undeveloped regions of the country), I had a moment of “do as I say, not as I do.” I hated this mark of development, seeing it as another symbol of all the worst American trends making their way to developing nations, while I simultaneously remembered every Starbucks beverage I had ever enjoyed. After visiting Tamui village, a beautiful village on the Mekong that still relied on fishing as their main source of income, a few days before, the sight of a Starbucks seemed gross, abrasive. I saw the Mekong river battling this fast food (coffee) chain, and I wanted the Mekong to win, I desperately wanted the traditional way of life to prevail. But, then I was reminded of a story that a friend here in Thailand relayed from his time studying abroad in Argentina. He said he had a similar moment of horror when he saw a McDonalds there until a friend questioned him, saying, “If this country wants McDonalds, who are we to say to they can’t have it?”

Who are we to say? How can anyone who holds a Big Mac in their right hand and a Venti Latte in their left tell anyone else to halt development in the name of the environment or preserving tradition? And even if I don’t personally partake in these activities, I still live in a country that ultimately reaps certain benefits from that type of development. America has developed this way, we have lost our traditions, we have ruined land, but the world has not blown up, the apocalypse has not come.

This revelation regarding our path of development really hit me when villagers affected by the construction of dams, or chemical farming asked our group about similar problems in the US, and I didn’t have much to offer. I have studied environmental justice in school, and economic problems, but this has always been in relation to cities in urban areas- not rural areas with dams or farms. I thought I knew about sources of injustice in the US, but injustice regarding farming or dams mostly happened decades ago, and thus I had no stories to relate to these villagers. Our country has already faced these problems, and gotten over them. Traditional ways of life have been destroyed, people have migrated from the country to the city, and now we have a whole new load of urban development problems. Much pain and suffering has accompanied this development, but civilization has gone on.

I thought that this was the most sensitive mind frame I could have regarding development: let people develop how they would like to develop- recognizing the virtue in communities that are less developed without forcing preservation of culture. I thought this, until I started learning facts such as- “four hectares of land are needed to maintain the consumption of the average person living in a high-income country, yet in 1990, the world had only 1.7 hectares per capita” (When Corporations Rules the World). Or “a child born in the US will consume, waste, and pollute 50 times more in their lifetime than a child living in a developing nation” (UNICEF). Thus, not everyone can expand to the American level of development; the world will blow up.

I came here thinking in terms of the power dynamics I was familiar with- imperialism, colonialism, etc. What I didn’t know was that the power dynamic was already set up for me, it was there regardless of any action I took to mitigate those forms of oppression. The oppression I am apart of doesn’t come from imparting values onto another’s culture, it comes from living in a way that makes it that much harder for other’s to live.

In 1988, Peggy McIntosh wrote the article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”- a must-read article in almost any class on privilege or oppression. This article is considered ground breaking, making many white people recognize privileges that had never before entered their consciousness- such as the ability to walk around a store without being questioned for stealing, or the ability to turn on the TV and see someone of your race portrayed in a positive light. In our globalized world, it is privileges such as the “ability to consume water or electricity without thinking twice,” or the “ability to eat your favorite meal without knowing where it came from,” that need to be recognized. It is now the invisible knapsack of consumer privilege (i.e. American privilege) that needs to be unpacked.

Samantha Sencer-Mura
Occidental College


CGE Mexico said...

Hi, Samantha.
I enjoyed reading your analysis of Western cultural imperialism in Thailand.Here in Mexico, we too had to read the "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" article. I have also noticed this happening in Mexico. When I arrived here, I was shocked to find businesses like Walmart and Starbucks amidst tortilla stands and local markets. It really makes you wonder, what is this world coming to? Globalization has begun to change local identities, which could ultimately prove to be problematic. If the entire world turns into Starbucks-drinking, BigMac eating mindless people, we will lose our global sense of diversity and cultural identity as well as the things that make us unique. Globalization is a complex issue as it allows people to enjoy these things, while also changing their culture to become more accepting of outside influences. You are right: In the end, who's to say these people shouldn't enjoy their coffee and burger?

Katy Jensen
CGE Mexico

Anonymous said...

I really like this blog post and it actually really helped put into words what I myself have been thinking about development. When I first walked into the mall and saw the new Starbucks, I was initially horrified, but after that shock wore off, I actually started to feel more like I was home in a sense because Starbucks was familiar, which made me feel a little more than pathetic. Your idea of development is something I think about all the time even in terms of education. We want to help people to preserve their culture and their traditions and environment but what if they want the same consumer things that we (as Americans in a 'developed' nation) have. I think the main question is whether what we have is actually sustainable and good. Just because technology gets better and better, doesn't mean we all have to advance, but society tells us we must or we'll get left behind. I think that from my somewhat 'environmentalist' point of view I look at development as attempted progress for humans but not for the greater environment. If you think about it, humans have only been on the Earth a miniscule fraction of the time many other species have, and the world is not meant for us to use up. But even if I have those idealistic beliefs, there is still that American consumer voice in my head that tells me to give a sigh of comfort upon seeing that Starbucks sign across the world away from home.

Amy said...

Hi Sam,

Man, privilege... and on top of that fat sandwich is a blob of development.

It is fascinating that you referred to blind consumerism as a privilege. In the hopes of changing the way we consume and create, recognizing this is an important first step that I have never thought about.

Your article invokes many questions for me. I do see McDonalds, Coca Cola, Syngenta, etc as mutated and evolved forms of dictatorship and imperialism, under the guise of globalization and development. Actually, I would like to reconsider the usage of these words. The world does keep spinning and moving forward and knowing whether we are going towards the right direction is frequently a question. Development, progress and change always exist and I believe any generation of people can and do nostalgically say that what exists now is not what was many years ago, but how do we draw the lines between a pattern and a big mess up?

From my time abroad, I think I have realized that it is almost futile to think of big pictures in abstract terms like change, development and poverty because I believe that these are creations of people who have the time and luxury to think of moving forward as such concepts. These words and the creators of them have intelligently made it extremely difficult for students like us to understand when something is blatantly wrong because we have been taught by a system of privilege to think of these words and these bigger pictures and thus apply them to the villages, villagers, communities. The “paradox of development” that we continuously find ourselves facing in these units, I believe is a dangerous product of our privileged backgrounds that we too must realize.

Abe said...

Why do we value a 99 cent burger, an artificial but sweet coffee, or a television showing America’s Next Top Model over the quality of life of a cow, a coffee farmer, or a villager living next to a mine? I don’t know, but it seems like we’ve created a reality that is, well, unreal. Back in the day, people lived in nature and could see how our world worked right in front of their eyes. They could see the process of taking materials from the land, understand how to work within the limits of the land, and deal with the natural waste produced from the use of those resources. Currently, we live distanced from nature, and we no longer handle leaves and dirt, but products made out of- actually, does anybody know what a potato chip bag or a computer is made of? Not only are the materials artificial, but the existence of the product itself is synthetic- we have no idea where it came from, where it will go (see Marx’s theory of commodity fetish), or how it affects our bodies, the people, or land that went into producing it- strange. This self-created illusion extends to the blood and bones of these products: money and the corporation, sorry if I sound like a liberal hippie. Prior to the advent of the green paper with numbers (keep in mind that numbers can theoretically expand infinitely), folks gathered and produced natural products that sustained their existence and the well-being of their land; there was no purpose to stockpiling an excessive amount of fish or rocks that would be at the detriment to the earth or one’s neighbors. But now, stockpiling for the sake of stockpiling, enhancing our bank accounts and accumulating commodities, is the name of the game (see Weber’s The Protestant Ethic); it’s our primary function, and the reaction to this is the sustainability ideology. In the report Alternatives to Economic Globalization by Cavanagh and Mander, et. al, the argument is made that corporations strive to achieve rapid short-term growth and profit, and that they are allowed to achieve these goals by means not legal for other human beings. Have you ever wondered why corporations are allowed to poison, abuse, or eliminate people and resources whereas the rest of us would be imprisoned for these acts? Though corporations are comprised of human beings, their standards of existence are a-human and unreal; their main function is to accumulate this unnatural thing called money, which when used to purchase resources, results in the resource’s excessive consumption. The rules of money do not apply to the rules of nature; resources cannot be produced infinitely. Essentially, we are trying to create our own rules, rules which are guided by some unwholesome emotions such as greed and power, to a world that already has its own. We are constantly creating illusions in our own minds about ourselves and each other. And as much as I agree that current development is fueled by the modern desire for unnatural products, I also see it as a symptom of not realizing the new reality, the unreality, we are living in- strange.

steph said...

I actually thought it was funny to see that there weren’t any Starbucks in Thailand. I had assumed that they had already taken over the world (there is a Starbucks practically built into the Great Wall of China) and it was refreshing to see an area not already infiltrated by the chain. So much for that.

While I think you raise a really good point about development and privilege, I hesitate to say that the people of Khon Kaen demanded a Starbucks. When I walked by the Starbucks over break, there was only one guy there – an old farang sitting reading a book. I suppose there are enough farangs to make a Starbucks feasible, but they are certainly in the minority.

Your post hits on that line that distinguishes globalization from Americanization and development from exploitation, and I think one things we are all getting out of this semester is an increased awareness about our consumerism and privilege.

Cyril said...

Have you ever considered New Journalism? Your "blog post" reads more to me like a wonderful, personality-infused essay.

I like have you've made privilege real for yourself by realizing how much of your (and my) lifestyle depends on the oppression of others. I'm curious though, having made this realization, how do you respond to development in Thailand now? Do you still feel wrong wanting to stop it in its tracks?

I don't think it's wrong to be disgusted when you come across a Starbucks in Thailand: it is disgusting to see that Starbucks is still expanding. A McDonalds in a developing country signifies not that they want it so they should have it, but instead that marketing has convinced them that they want it. It also signifies to me the globalization of a food culture that is based on artificial, unhealthy ingredients, mass-production, and awful taste.

I once met an American special agent in Ghana and asked him how he liked the country. He told me "eh, it's okay. I just can't believe they don't have McDonalds here. I've been all over the world and this is one of the only places I can't get McDonalds. What am I supposed to eat?" That's just great isn't it? Such worldly knowledge about McDonalds.

Also, you are great.