By MOLLY SULLIVAN
With recent news of a U.S. service member opening fire on Afghan civilians, we should realize one of two things: that a war’s brutality affects all human beings involved, or that the horrific effects of America’s war on terror are unfairly distributed among the nations involved. While Sept. 11 is a clear example of America’s victimization during this era of terror, all conflicts resulting from this issue have taken place on foreign soil. This is American privilege.
As Americans, we enjoy and take for granted seemingly infinite privileges as a result of our country of origin. While our streets are not paved with gold, and socioeconomic inequalities are ubiquitous on U.S. soil, certain aspects of American life are experienced exclusively in this world superpower. Compiling a list of these American privileges would be a daunting task, but focusing specifically on military, economic and linguistic privileges in America can reveal the extent to which America’s normalized sense of power and entitlement disadvantages fellow human beings abroad—all while simultaneously distancing the American people from the very force that hinders international equality in the name of domestic power.
Perhaps one of the most poignant examples of this disconnect experienced by the American people is that, in this day and age, our wars have been fought entirely abroad. Those who don’t have direct military involvement in the war on terror have little understanding of the decades of warfare carried out abroad. As a people living under the world’s strongest government, militarily speaking, the current war is entirely offensive.
The only way non-military Americans have any awareness of the war being waged is through media coverage. Most Americans take this for granted—war is much bloodier, much more devastating and much more tragic than early evening news coverage would suggest. Of course we are involved in this war by virtue of being tax-paying, patriotic Americans. But unless an American is enlisted in the military, we are conveniently shielded from the first-person horrors of war due to a privilege with which we were born. Fortunately for us, fighting wars abroad in relatively poor nations is an aspect of American life.
Another important privilege Americans must be aware of is the level of exploitation that fuels our economy. Underpaid, exploited workers produce an unsettling proportion of consumer products. According to online magazine Behind the Label, more than 2 million people worldwide work in sweatshops designed to mass produce American clothing. In addition, about 80 percent of these employees work in conditions that do not meet those set out in international labor laws. However, as Americans far removed from this hypothetical, nightmarish work environment, the sight of such exploitation never inconveniences us. Instead, we simply reap its benefits, keeping up with the latest fashion trends for reasonable prices.
The exploitation that occurs abroad is a serious problem by itself; however, an additional problem is the difficulty a mindful American faces as he or she tries to opt out of this exploitative system. Due to the prevalence of outsourced labor, it is difficult, not to mention expensive, to purchase American-made products exclusively. As Americans, the easiest and most affordable option to fill our closets and our homes is through supporting unethical production practices. But fortunately for us, armed with American privilege, we never truly have to face or understand the exploitation that provides us with comfortable, fashionable lives.
The last instance of American privilege to be discussed is one of a linguistic nature. Perhaps it is human nature to experience wanderlust from time to time; as Americans, this desire to travel is facilitated by the fact that we can visit virtually any major city in the world without having the burdensome responsibility of grasping the local language. It is no accident that the lingua franca of the world is that of our own nation. While America has no official language, it is quite clear that the widespread use of English is particularly advantageous to American travelers.
This relief of the responsibility to familiarize oneself with a nation’s language before traveling to that nation perpetuates the sense of privilege and entitlement that is inherent to contemporary American culture. While this example does not have the large-scale consequences the previously mentioned privileges have, it is symbolic of the general American experience in relation to the rest of the world. By virtue of our status as English-speaking Americans, endless doors are opened and our paths are cleared before us. It is no wonder why Americans have such lower rates of bilingualism in comparison to other nations.
All of these instances of invisible American privilege are inherent aspects of the American way of life, and it would be arrogant to claim that one can avoid these unfair privileges entirely, if at all. American culture is obviously more complicated and multidimensional than matters of military, economic and linguistic privilege. In addition, it would be erroneous to assume that American culture is inherently ignorant or negative. The discussion of privilege simply seeks to shed light on aspects of American life that are taken for granted and normalized. Before any positive change can come about in terms of America’s position with the rest of the world, one must first identify and reflect upon the many aspects of life that define American culture.