Part 3 of 3
White privilege. It’s a term I didn’t even know existed until about 3 years ago. But once I heard it, I knew I had it, and plenty of it.
Moving to a different country made me a minority and I got stared at almost every day. The discomfort of this used to make me not want to leave my apartment, let alone dive headfirst into a new culture. But this ogling of me and my “minority” status are not equivalent to minorities in the States. I am stared at because of my beautiful white skin and big eyes and nose. I am stared at because I am fascinating and different and presumably rich.
The past year has forced me to come face to face with my privilege like never before. Because I always had the luxury of ignoring its existence, seeping back into my comfortable life where everyone looked like me and thought like me.
There’s a difference between white privilege and white guilt. I don’t feel guilty. I can ask again and again why I was born where I was and other people weren’t, but in the end it’s a moot point. The way I see it, we can either let privilege fester into guilt, or take action and become allies to those without privilege.
So here’s the part I’ve been most nervous about coming back to Thailand: fundraising. It makes me very uncomfortable, in large part because I’ve never done it before. But here it goes: this is why you should take a few minutes and read about why I’m so strongly set on coming back to Thailand.
A year ago when I arrived in Chiang Mai, I knew next to nothing about the conflicts in neighboring Myanmar (Burma). I vaguely remembered it in the news years ago and always thought about a brief reference to the crisis on Gilmore Girls.
Even the first few months I was in Thailand, it was not apparent that there was any blatant problem. But that’s the thing about privilege: we can choose what we see.
I learned a little bit more about the political strife, and saw Aung San Suu Kyi get elected in November. But I didn’t truly understand (and there are still many aspects I am ignorant on) until I started working at Partners Relief and Development.
So here’s what’s going on: Burma is in the midst of one of the longest running civil wars in the world–over 60 years. Through that time, the government has been controlled by a military dictatorship that has committed countless human rights offenses against ethnic minority groups. Among those groups are the Karen, Shan, Kachin, and Rohingya people, all of whom we are serving at Partners.
The corrupt government and lack of stability has allowed Burma to fall into deep poverty, and its spending on healthcare and education is among the lowest of any country in the world.
Therefore, millions of migrant workers from Myanmar have flocked to Thailand for work and opportunity. In Chiang Mai, a majority of the migrants are from Shan State. Many of them come without their families or an education and work in low-paying, often dangerous jobs and are highly susceptible to exploitation, sex trafficking and unhealthy working conditions.
Migrants are forced to take these unskilled positions because they lack other skills, and sometimes cannot speak the Thai language.
Here is where SEED Center comes in. Through a collaboration of Partners Relief and Development and Shan Youth Power, SEED Center offers classes five nights a week to migrant workers looking to further their education and create more opportunities. At SEED they can take classes in English, Thai, and computers, as well as learn about their rights and–most importantly–build a community with other Shan people.
Sometimes I look back and think about all of the chances I’ve been given in my life. God really stacked the deck for me: white, upper-middle class, American, college educated. My students at SEED didn’t get any of those. But guess what? They are still some of the most hardworking, dedicated people I have ever met. Some of them work 10 hour shifts, and still find two and a half hours at night to come and study English.
I have heard some similar stories from the Shan staff I work with: some of them lost their family, came to Thailand, worked for many years until they were able to attend university. Now they are looking to give back to the Shan community and eventually return to Myanmar and reestablish the need for education.
These are the people who will change the world, of that I’m sure. These lovely, thoughtful, intelligent people, who want to better their own lives so that they can return and help their country–they are the change makers.
Sometimes I just want to march into Yangon and bring about sweeping political and economic reform to Burma in five minutes. But, obviously, I can’t do that. But that doesn’t make me hopeless. What I can do is give the Shan people (and other people of Burma) the tools to further their education so that they may bring their country out of the darkness.
This is why I am going back. I will be working with Partners Relief and Development once again to give free, full lives to the children of conflict and oppression.
Still have questions about Myanmar/Burma? Why does it have two names? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oh yes, and thank you, thank you, thank you!