Pondering Privilege, a Book Review

Jody Fernando has written a beautiful, practical, and challenging book: Pondering Privilege: Toward a deeper understanding of whiteness, race, and faith.

Jody blogs at Between Worlds and if any Djibouti Jones readers have read When Rich Westerners Don’t Know They’re Being Rich Westerners, know that that blog post was inspired by Jody’s superb post When White People Don’t Know They’re Being White. That’s how I first met Jody, three years ago now and I continue to be challenged and inspired by her writing.

Pondering Privilege takes what Jody started with that viral post and deepens it. As a white woman in a brown family, her perspective is uniquely helpful to someone like me – a white woman in a white family, living in a brown country.

The book could be a quick read but Jody raises such important issues and asks such challenging questions that it is a book one could sit with for weeks. It will make readers uncomfortable and this is a good thing – anyone who wants to grow in their ability to communicate about race, to understand, to seek forgiveness, and to deepen community and move toward healing, should read this book.

Jody takes concepts like ‘cultural competency’ and replaces them with ‘cultural humility,’ examines privilege, and calls out white people for our ignorant ways of thinking and acting as well as addressing the issue of entire systems of privilege. She will not let us sit in complacency.

Each chapter ends with questions to ponder, which makes this an excellent book club choice for people who are ready and willing to wrestle, to be brutally honest with themselves and others, and who want to grow.

For me, the best part of Jody’s book is the utterly practical but radically transformative 21-Day Race Challenge. This alone makes buying the book well worth it because, if you take her up on the challenge, you will be changed. This isn’t a book to read and put away on the shelf, it is a book that can, if you let it, seep into your life and actually change things for the better.

*I received an ARC (advanced reader copy) of this book for review.

Expatriate, Immigrant, Racist?

I’ve always assumed I’m an expatriate (please, let’s be clear that this is not an ex-patriot. please). Lately, this has come into question. Quite a few people have forwarded, shared on Facebook, or tweeted to me an article picked up by The Guardian: Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants? One person left a comment on my last piece for Brain Child (The Expatriate at the Parent Teacher Association Meeting). She said she wondered why I thought I was an expatriate. She seemed to think I was wrong to use that word.

expat or immigrant

I confess that I hadn’t given this much thought. Is my use of the word ‘expatriate’ racist? Have white people appropriated the word and are non-white people limited in their ability to claim it? As it came to my attention more and more I decided it was time to think about it. There are two levels (at least) to this. One is the dictionary definition level. The other is the experiential level.

So, I looked up the official dictionary definitions and found this at the Global Coach Center:

According to Miriam-Webster:

  • the word “Expatriate” is actually a verb or an adjective and means someone “living in a foreign land”.
  • the word “Immigrant” is a noun and means “a person who comes to a country to take permanent residence”.

If we go only by these definitions above, I see one major distinction that sets them apart.  Immigrants have an intention to stay – whereas for the expatriates this intention isn’t mentioned and isn’t clear.

Turns out immigrants can be expatriates but expatriates are not necessarily immigrants. According to Google an expat is someone living outside their native country. An immigrant is someone permanently residing outside their native country.

This idea of permanence is significant both in how it relates to the new country and the old country. An expatriate tends to engage less in the host country and maintains a stronger tie to the old country. An immigrant might feel a greater sense of loss toward the old country and also a greater sense of responsibility and intention in engaging in the host country. Kind of like renting versus owning. An expat is a renter, an immigrant is an owner.

By definition then, I am an expatriate. I don’t intend to stay in Djibouti for my entire life and since that is very clear, I can’t claim the immigrant term.

Now, that is in the dictionary. Frankly, I was at first surprised at the fury with which the article is written. It kind of seems like a rant and I’ve heard at least one person refer to it as total bullshit. I’m still willing to address the issue because I think it brings up something really important and complicated. But I was surprised because I looked at my experience:

My first thoughts took me to the most diverse place I know well – the protestant church I attend here in Djibouti. There are people from Uganda, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Kenya, Congo, Nigeria, Burundi, America, England, Switzerland, Korea, France, Germany… I think of us as expatriates. Some have lived here for decades, some for weeks. Myself, I’ve passed the decade point. I never thought of any of the others, regardless of skin color or economic or social class, as immigrants. We are here for work and we are expatriates.

Because none of us intends to stay forever.

We might stay here a long time. We might even die here, though that isn’t our intention. But we maintain residency and passport and voting rights and tax-paying responsibilities, etc. in our home countries which are not this one. To me, that is an expatriate. We’re here but we’re also slightly not here. We’re renters.

An immigrant is someone who comes, possibly against their will or preference, like a refugee, and goes all in. They will stay in this new country. They might go back but that isn’t in the plan as far as they know it. They invest in a different way, a more personal way, weaving themselves into the fabric of the new country and letting it weave itself into them. They are owners.

I had never considered that skin color or country of origin had anything to do with what we call ourselves.  There are white immigrants in Djibouti. There are black expatriates.

But that is just my experience and I’m learning that in different parts of the world, this is very different. I was helped by Hana Omar who commented on my FB page that in Europe there does seem to be a strong class and racial component to which term is used. And that is where this article in the Guardian is coming from – experience, which for the author, clearly included racism and hurtful interactions.

In raising this topic among others, it is clear there are related words that are much more racially charged (the following examples come from the comment thread on my FB page for this Guardian article). Words like migrant worker, which seems to apply exclusively to non-white people even though they are technically expatriates. Or in some places Foreign Domestic Workers who are also technically expatriates but that word isn’t applied to them. In Texas, the guys on the oil rigs are expats but the gas station employee, also in the US on a work visa, isn’t. One person mentioned that this could be because status (and the words used to convey that status) is affected by the terms of employment and his comment stuck with me because these examples turn the focus of the conversation from race to wealth and class, also problematic but not necessarily racist.

But expatriate and immigrant? Both words are beautiful and should be worn with pride by those to whom they belong. Expats are (generally) curious and open and passionate about two worlds. They are bridge people who can take the best of two places and cultures and blend them or use them to sharpen each other. Immigrants are (generally) curious and open and passionate about two worlds. They are also bridge people who can take the best of two places and cultures and blend them or use them to sharpen each other.

But the terms matter, they aren’t conveying the same thing. For example, expatriates have the struggle of doing the splits, of keeping a toe in two countries and the longer they live abroad, the further apart the two countries become, the deeper they must sink into the split. This hurts.  And immigrants have the struggle of grief, they have left behind a place they knew and instinctively understood and are straining to fit into a place that doesn’t inherently recognize them. This also hurts. We have something in common but we are not the same.

What do I conclude? Two things. One, I can confidently say I’m an expatriate. And two, I can’t assume by looking at someone that they are an expatriate or an immigrant. I have to talk to them and hear their story. What?! That’s right, always and ever back to getting to know people. Listening, asking questions, hearing where they came from and where they are going and not jumping to conclusions based on previous experience or expectations or skin color or job title.

So while it is rather easy to simply answer the question based on the dictionary, it is much harder to dive into these areas of race and class and assumption. I stand by my belief that I’m an expatriate and I feel comfortable using it without feeling like doing so labels me racist or elitist but I’m thankful for this conversation. It help me analyze and consider the experiences of others and it challenge me to examine how I make assumptions based on externals.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Expatriate or immigrant? Racist? Elitist?

What I Learned: Forming a Diverse Team

This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel.

Today’s What I Learned post comes from Anita Dualeh (who also wrote Why Doesn’t Your Wife Wear Hijab for the Let’s Talk About Hijab series). She writes about wrestling with issues of race and diversity in the Parent Teacher Organization at her children’s St. Paul, Minnesota school.


This past September our oldest son started kindergarten at a public school in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. At the first meeting of the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) I learned that the school now has fewer than half Caucasian children in its student body. The PTO, however, does not reflect the diversity of its students. There were a few parents of color at the first few meetings of the year, but the only people who consistently show up are white moms. Leaders in the PTO have been talking about how to increase the diversity of the organization. They formed a mosaic committee, which has met twice I believe. I haven’t ever heard an exact number, but I’ve gathered that the committee charged with helping figure out a solution to the lack of diversity is mostly, if not all, white.

diverse school boys

I thought about joining this committee, but it seems like it is doomed from the start. My husband, who is from East Africa, isn’t joining either. He has things to say on this topic, but he’d probably never say them in such a setting. Many minorities may feel like he does. They have little spare time because they’re working hard to provide for their families. Why would they show up at meetings where the goals are nebulous and where they are fairly certainly people don’t really understand them? If they have input, would anyone take it seriously? Some of them probably feel that the major decisions have already been made and there isn’t room in the conversation to tell the group that they aren’t convinced of the need for their children to sell frozen pizzas or kitchen gadgets from a glossy catalogue to people who don’t really want to buy them. They probably won’t bother to say that they have no intention of going to a bar on a Saturday evening to bid on silent auction items they don’t have room in their budget to buy. (I never said that aloud either, though it was how I felt.) And they may not understand the point of going to school on a frigid night in January for family fitness night. But that does not automatically mean they are uninvolved or apathetic parents.

At our school there are parents of every color who care deeply about their children’s education. But ideas of what an involved parent looks like may vary from one culture to another. And how it plays out in the day-to-day could look quite different from what those in the dominant culture might expect. For starters, the mass emails or letters sent home from school probably aren’t reaching everyone the PTO wants to reach. Indeed, some parents may respond better to personal invitations to help out with existing activities or programs, but I have a hunch that even a more personal touch won’t achieve a really high response rate. It’s a hunch based on personal experience. For the school’s literacy night, another PTO-sponsored event, I talked my husband into telling some traditional tales from his culture for one of the storytelling sessions. He didn’t want to. “Do it for your son,” I pleaded. So he agreed. But if my son and I wouldn’t have been here to talk him into it again on the snowy evening of the event, he may have never gone. He really did it just for us. I asked our neighbors from Togo to participate in the storytelling that evening as well. They declined. Even though I’d recently started taking care of their daughter after school and I thought they sort of owed me a favor.

Rather than just inviting individuals of color to join us in what we’re already doing, perhaps we need to take a step backward. Maybe we need to start with questions like, “How should we collectively support our children’s learning?” Certainly, we need to make it a conversation that includes a lot more people. But to those like my husband, even this appears to be little more than lip service. I asked him why he thought parents of color are generally not involved in the PTO. “Because they don’t feel like they belong,” he said. “Look at the staff at the school. They’re all white.” In his view you’re not going to get parents of color to participate in volunteer activities when the school doesn’t demonstrate they value diversity enough to hire teachers of color. What if they can’t find such teachers? He doesn’t believe that’s the problem. (I have heard once that city schools in our area have found it challenging to hire licensed teachers that reflect the diversity of their students, but don’t have any facts to prove or disprove that statement.)

What my husband is suggesting is that perhaps the root of the problem is structural racism, which is something the PTO alone can’t fix. It sounds overwhelming.  But for the sake of our children I hope we don’t give up. I hope we continue to ask the hard questions. I hope we make a commitment to listening to minority parents. To do that well, parents from the dominant culture first need to reach out to parents of color with no agenda beyond friendship. As we each diversify our own pool of friends, diversifying the PTO might just take care of itself.  

anita doualeh2Anita Dualeh, who lives in St. Paul with her husband and two sons, leads her church’s Refugee Life Ministry team. She blogs at www.1stteacher.wordpress.com

*image via Flickr

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