**Disclaimer: The following is personal blog based on my individual experience in Dhaka, Bangladesh.**
Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.
― Paulo Freire
When we aren’t directly confronted with an issue, it’s easy to ignore it. When we don’t know an issue, when we don’t see it, or we aren’t informed of the stakes at play, it’s really really easy to ignore it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the spaces and places in my worlds. My current surroundings in Bangladesh, but also a bit about home in Canada where these issues are also relevant.
I would argue that inequality is one of the biggest problems facing many our societies around the world. Some have tackled the problem better than others, but it’s a reoccurring trend in too many capitalist economies.
Inequality can exist along a number of different axises: income inequality, racial inequality, gender inequality etc.
What I’ve been thinking about lately is how easy it is for those in privileged positions to ignore the realities of those who are less privileged. My existence is extremely privileged, especially in a Bangladeshi context. Despite a desire to understand my own privilege, I still think a full understanding often eludes me.
I’ve said it before in one of my previous blogs, “we are not Bangladeshis living in Bangladesh, we are Canadians living in Bangladesh.”
In my little world of Victoria, I don’t have to confront the same issues that I do in Bangladesh. I live in an area where there are few homeless people, where everyone has adequate nutrition, where there is peace… Where on the whole, things are going okay for people. I don’t mean to say there are no problems, but on the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (food,water, shelter, air etc.), people are mostly covered.
In Dhaka, we often talk about “the bubble.” It encompasses four neighbourhoods (roughly) in Dhaka where the wealthy live (Gulshan I and II, Baridhara, and Banani). While these neighbourhoods are far from the Hollywood hills, there are nonetheless an area where the wealthy are able to group together and live in relative isolation from the problems plaguing Dhaka. They can afford cars and drivers who will take them where they need to go, and they can shelter themselves from the realities of the Dhaka.
Even though we don’t live in the bubble, we do live in a bubble. Not just in Dhaka, but in many parts of the world, including Canada.
We continuously allow ourselves to be bubbled in. In essence, our money allows us to buy comforts. Sometimes the comforts are nice clothes or fancy soap – things with relatively few consequences. Other times though, our position allows us to find comfort, to find refuge and escape from things that we really ought to confront more directly.
This purchased reclusion allows us to go on with our daily lives and ignore the plight of those around us.
The same could not be more true of First Nations Communities in Canada. Because reserves are, by nature, segregated areas, it is so easy for non-indigenous Canadians to ignore their plight. We lack interaction with each other and that drives ignorance and apathy. It’s one thing to hear that communities around Canada don’t have access to clean drinking water, but along with all the other news and statistics, it gets lost in the noise and it is easy to ignore. I have to privilege to ignore it because it does not directly affect my life.
There are many other ways we ignore people and segregate ourselves: gated communities, business lounges, first-class sections, private vehicles, tall office towers, fancy restaurants…
All of theses spaces allow us to ignore the realities around us… To isolate ourselves in our privilege.
It is becoming more common to talk about digital segregation too. Facebook and Twitter feeds share the things we like, the things that are familiar to us. We see news articles that support our view. If we are into shopping, we see new products. If we are into fancy cars, we see the new models on our feeds. But what about the things we don’t like ? The things that are awkward or the things that make us uncomfortable ? We don’t see them and in so doing, we ignore an entire dimension.
In Dhaka, I see the same thing is happening to me. Sure, I am exposed to things that are different from my life in Canada. And I think that I probably don’t fully understand how my time here will affect my life going forward. But what I do know is that this city makes me uncomfortable. I don’t mean because of the heat, but because of the suffering and injustice that actively takes place in front of my eyes.
Each day, we pretty much walk the same route to and from work. As a result, we often encounter some of the same people en route. There is the man who sleeps on the bamboo scaffolding along the sidewalk, his bones as visible as his discomfort. By the walled-in school, an elderly woman sits on a piece of plastic against the concrete wall, her eyes faded, her hand raised to me. The poverty can be devastating.
The garbage. The smell. The dogs. The floods. The air.
Yet, my good fortune allows me to escape it all. Not permanently, but largely. Not always, but a lot of the time. We have a nice apartment. We eat at nice restaurants. We don’t have to faire face à la realité. We can ignore it and we ignore it a lot. In fact, I’d say it’s probably our number one passtime in Dhaka.
We often eat-out in restaurants along Bailey Road. Here, a number of women, children and disabled people congregate in above-average numbers. It’s often overwhelming and we generally try to get off that street as fast as possible. Sometimes, I think to myself “My god! What the (insert curse word) is wrong with us? Shouldn’t we all stop what we are doing right now and help them right now!? Where is the urgency?!
But we don’t act, we run back to our bubbles.
“To be white, or straight, or male, or middle class is to be simultaneously ubiquitious and invisible. You’re everywhere you look, you’re the standard against which everyone else is measured. You’re like water, like air. People will tell you they went to see a “woman doctor” or they will say they went to see “the doctor.” People will tell you they have a “gay colleague” or they’ll tell you about a colleague. A white person will be happy to tell you about a “Black friend,” but when that same person simply mentions a “friend,” everyone will assume the person is white. Any college course that doesn’t have the word “woman” or “gay” or “minority” in its title is a course about men, heterosexuals, and white people. But we call those courses “literature,” “history” or “political science.” This invisibility is political.”
― Michael Kimmer
People often say, “I don’t like politics” or “We shouldn’t talk about politics.” But who are the people that can afford to say such things? I know I could probably pass my entire life without considering politics, but it is privilege that enables such statements. As a CAPI group, we’ve talked a lot about what solidarity means. I think it means saying, YES, I see you. I see what you’re going through, I will listen to your story and I will not accept it. It’s a commitment to seek justice and to stand up and fight for what is right. We have to do more. I have to do more. Nobody needs to prompt us. When people say or do things that are wrong, we have to call them out. Bad jokes, comments and actions are really easy to make and often even easier to ignore, but for the communities that they affect, they can be devastating.
“Responsibility I believe accrues through privilege. People like you and me have an unbelievable amount of privilege and therefore we have a huge amount of responsibility. We live in free societies where we are not afraid of the police; we have extraordinary wealth available to us by global standards. If you have those things, then you have the kind of responsibility that a person does not have if he or she is slaving seventy hours a week to put food on the table; a responsibility at the very least to inform yourself about power. Beyond that, it is a question of whether you believe in moral certainties or not.”
― Noam Chomsky