By Wakanyi Hoffman
My 11 year old daughter and her father have just returned from a trip to England and Scotland to scout and feel out potential school options for her upcoming secondary school education. These are boarding schools, whose names are laced with prestige, privilege and elitism at their hems. They are situated in idyllic countryside settings that date back to the origin of the English empire, where English roses, daintily sculpted with nostalgic delicate fragrances, frame their manicured lawns against the views of the famed rolling hills. It is also where Harry-Potter’s Hogwarts-themed boarding houses have been graced by the footsteps of generations of royalty both current and old.
And yet we are not royalty. Or wealthy. Just an ordinary, millennial middle class-family that has chosen an intentional nomadic lifestyle while working in the humanitarian sector. We consider ourselves global nomads, not distanced from my maternal Maasai grandfather, who hailed from Kenya’s famed pastoral tribe. If he were living in our modern world today, he would fit the mold of a true global citizen, solving today’s problems for future generations to come, having himself pioneered girls’ education in a remote village in colonial Africa as was dedicated in his eulogy more than four decades ago.
Given his status in society, my grandfather was an elite. He came from a wealthy family whose livestock could only be counted in herds of cows and goats and the expanse of his family land could not be marked by a spear thrown with the stamina of the greatest Maasai warrior, no matter how mighty. If these educational opportunities had been within his reach during his parenting times, he too would have similarly explored these schools for my mother. He was always well ahead of his time, a futurist who saw the impending new world and ensured that his vision was aligned with it, for himself and for his offspring.
However, his remaining relatives form the diminishing indigenous communities being threatened to extinction by our modern technology. They are neither wealthy nor educated. At least not in the way that the modern society would perceive wealth or education. Not in goats and cows or spiritual wisdom. They may never see the inside of a formal classroom in a Scottish castle. But their distant relation, my 11 year old, just might.
Like many other jet-setting expats, our chosen family lifestyle is considered elitist- such a relative description considering that it is the nature of our work that facilitates this lifestyle choice. But given that my daughter and her father were retracing the steps that the Duchess of Cambridge took in her preppy boarding house, we would fit the image of the elites of our world, a world that is completely the opposite of the Duchess and nowhere close to that of my ethnic warrior tribe.
Elitism, Prestige, Privilege- are all the terms we have used to describe the likes of the Duchess on a global arena, but not a Maasai warrior chief amongst villagers in colonial Africa.
As an expat family that is also intercultural and interracial, we are aware of the box into which our seemingly privileged Third Culture Kids, also known as TCKs, are thrown into. They are privately educated amongst top society’s privately educated, they live in the upper ends of the housing catchment area in different countries, thus by default, their friends are the elites of their society. This budding future generation of global citizens is largely unaware of the connotation of such words as privilege when they play together in the school’s playground.
For privilege, as advised by James Baldwin to Margo Jefferson- the best-selling author of Negroland, is provisional. In their revelatory conversation on power and privilege, Baldwin, a renowned social critic of America’s racial discourse explained further to Margo, an African-American and also a renown cultural critic, that ‘Privilege can be denied, withheld, offered grudgingly and summarily withdrawn.’ Thus privilege is somewhat a social misconstruction. Like the concept of power, it is a kind of goal that the human race is hard wired to achieve. In our modern world, we give it noble definitions such as enlightenment, but fail to see that those considered as enlightened- the revered leaders, priests and philosophers of our history also strangely live a privileged lifestyle. So why do we frown upon privilege as the mighty fall of the wealthy elite, if privilege is not necessarily measured in wealth?
Baldwin sheds the light upon this by explaining that it is entitlement that we should be against. Entitlement is the evil opposite of privilege that is ‘impervious to the kinds of verbs that modify privilege.’ It divides rather than unifies and reduces the wealthiest to a despicable level. His advice, whether you feel privileged or not is that, you’ve got to tell the world how to treat you. And if you happen to be at the top of the food chain, accept your social duty of elevating those steps below the same ladder that another above helped you climb.
I have struggled throughout our decade-long expatriate lifestyle to come to terms with what is readily within our reach. I have wined and dined with royalty in Nepal and the Philippines, lived in nice homes that are peculiarly always adjacent to a slum, like in Addis or in Nairobi, my current city- a constant reminder of the wealth gap. In Thailand I found myself attracting friends from the highest ranking members of the Thai royal family by default because their children and mine sat eating pad thai noodles in the same tables at their school lunch cafeteria. Unlike the out-of-pocket paying families high up on that social class ladder, the prestigious international school that my children attended was paid for by our employers. Once inside, the khaki school skorts and pants that our children wore unified and diminished their status and those of their royal friends to students. The teachers could not tell them apart and this was one of the draws for sending the wealthy kids to this particular school- that they were treated as ordinary. Outside of the equalizing school fence, our gross income was never revealed and we shopped for milk, cheese and cereal in the same organic shops, often times complaining about the prohibitive cost of feeding our children pesticide-free food.
I have had the same conversation with my housekeeper in Kenya, our current home, with whom I am divided by that road between my high income rental property and her low-income rental property. We complain about rent. All the time. We complain about school fees. All the time. It is all relative and it is all based on a commodity that we are all in perpetual search for- more cash to pay off our ever increasing bills. We are united in our middle class status. Hers in the slums, mine in the posh estate. A dirty river runs between the two.
When I explained to her how scared I was to send my daughter to a boarding school in the UK, she asked, “Do you have to pay for it?” I told her that she might get a scholarship. She looked at me, dead-pan faced and said, “But you know that the scholarship is a privilege you cannot buy, something she will have to earn.” There once again, she reminded me, without even knowing those words had been spoken by an individual far wiser and more intellectual than both of us combined that privilege IS provisional. It can be earned. And everyone has a right to earn it. It is when the privileged become entitled, demanding to be treated better than others because they are North and you are South, or they are rich and you are poor that then privilege becomes a divisive evil.
As a self-proclaimed global citizen, I have gained an increasing awareness of what both my privileged nomadic expat lifestyle and my limiting black African heritage present as my outward identity. The line that divides the two is where my provisional privilege is earned- where I am judged by who I am on the inside. It is where I place the axis that marks my human connection to another, that allows the other to grant me privilege to be a friend, a comrade who can occupy any amount of space in another person’s life. I am not entitled to that privilege and indeed I too grant it selectively.
The decision to grant another person access into your world is determined by your level of understanding of the other. Depending upon how your life’s journey interconnects with another’s, you can both mark E for Empathy where your paths intersect. For Empathy is what grants you freedom to understand that you are both equally privileged to have met, whether in a classroom inside a Scottish castle, or under an acacia tree in Africa’s vast savannah.