The Global Citizen is a joint project of New Voices and the American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Throughout the year, a group of former AJWS volunteers will offer their take on global justice, Judaism, and international development. Opinions expressed by Global Citizen bloggers do not necessarily represent AJWS.
In a weekly commentary on the Torah for the American Jewish World Service, Daniel Bloom, a program associate at Hazon, argues for clearer and more transparent leadership of Zimbabwe. While I feel completely comfortable agreeing with Daniel that Zimbabwe might be better off in the hands of a person committed to its people rather than to money or power, I felt very uncomfortable reading his argument. Daniel Bloom, a white middle-class (I’m making an assumption there) male living in America, is the beneficiary of many societal privileges. So am I. And it’s vitally important that Daniel and I acknowledge how the advantages society gives us affect how we see places like Zimbabwe.
Let me give some examples to make this more clear. We’re dealing with what’s known in the social work world as “oppression” (that’s just the word they chose to use), and here are some other forms of oppression. In America, we often hear rich white men suggesting “poor people should just work harder.” Or “African-Americans should just learn to talk right.” Or saying “Sure, it’s terrible that women are raped in America, but they should just learn how to dress in a less inviting way.” In these examples, we’re focused on the targeted group, without acknowledging our own privilege.
What does privilege mean? It includes the fact that women still only receive 70 cents on every dollar for the same work a man does, and the fact that white people have accumulated 11 times as much wealth as African-Americans, purely as the result of discriminatory policies (enacted by whites) from the 1500’s until the 1960’s and beyond.
There is also something called Euro-American privilege, so let’s talk about that for a while. We’ll begin with the history of Zimbabwe (thanks to Wikipedia). Zimbabwe is a country in southern Africa. Its official language is English. Please read that sentence again. Yes, that’s right, the effects of colonialism on Zimbabwe are so strong and lasting that still, its official language is a tongue unheard within its borders before the United Kingdom came to colonize and exploit. And who benefits from this fact? Americans, us, people who speak English as our native tongue and live in a Western cultural system.
In the 1880s, Britain arrived in the land known now as Zimbabwe with Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa company. What were Rhodes’ intentions? To help the people of Zimbabwe? Or to exploit them, sell some into slavery, and pirate their natural resources? In other words, what model does current president Robert Mugabe have to go on?
The country didn’t achieve full independence until the 1970s, with Britain protesting the entire time and asking the United Nations to impose sanctions. Rather than encourage the residents of Zimbabwe, the cultural inheritors, to own their own land and government, a Western government tried to follow avenues of power open to it because of its Western privilege in order to control and restrict the country. Again, we in the West benefit directly from the destabilization of Zimbabwe, through our ability to exploit Zimbabwe’s workers and resources. I know my family and friends weren’t forced to live through decades of violence. I know that I wasn’t surrounded by a culture of corruption inspired directly from the nefarious intentions of the Western colonialists.
I am thrilled that we realize the existence of problems in Zimbabwe and the need for an effective solution. But any effective solution to the historic exploitation of Zimbabwe needs to begin with the exploiters, not with Zimbabwe’s president. We helped colonize and create these problems, and it’s our responsibility to help fix them.
I welcome your comments!