the privilege of traveling

July 23, 2009 § 7 Comments

i have been thinking  about writing this post for a while.  in part i have not done so because i do have lots of privilege and have been able to travel.  and i felt awkward, felt like i was making myself vulnerable to criticism if i wrote this.  but then i figured, fuck it.

i had one of those conversations that i seem to have every few months with someone new about how i do not take into account how privileged i am to be able to travel and live abroad.  and how privileged i was to be partnered. when i talk about my experience of being a mother.

privilege.  privilege. privilege.

1. i do take how much privileged i am into account.  actually in some ways i am more aware of certain types of privilege because i travel.  for instance, the power of my US citizenship comes into stark relief when i am abroad.

2. and i know that it is a privilege to be in a happy partnership, both of us dedicated to loving aza and each other.

3. but i also know that traveling and being partnered is not in and of itself simply privileged.


let me see if i can put it this way:

through out history.  as long as there have been wars.  mothers have traveled with their children.  they have to survive.  they become refugees.  they become slaves.  they travel to find a safe place to live and create a life with their families.  they leave home to flee abusive husbands, or advancing troops, to find doctors, to find lost family, to take care of sick family, to find work, to find food, to find peace.

yes it can be a privilege to travel.

but it can also be a privilege to stay home.

it can be a privilege to feel that where you are is probably safer than where you are not.

it is a privilege to have a place that you call home.

it should be a right, but for now it is a privilege.


and my life has shown me intimately that being partnered can be a blessing or a curse.  some mothers are happily partnered and some are terrorized and abused and forced to stay partnered.  sometimes being a single mother is a privilege and being married is an oppression.

once upon a time in an empire far far away i gave up nearly everything i had just to get out of a relationship.  and im glad we didnt have children together because if we had had them i pretty certain that he wouldnt have let me leave alive.

and i couldnt just leave the city. or the state.  because he followed me.  state to state.

i left the continent.

i left because i realized that i deserved to be happy.  and for years i had been with him in a small southern town.  still segregated.  really trying to build community through artistic expression and space.  really convinced that this was the important work.  and that it didnt matter that i felt stifled.  stay local.  stay local.  just nurture your garden.  and if everyone did that then the world would be a better place.  and all that.

and dont get me wrong.  i believe in community building locally.  i do.  some of the most amazing community leaders i have known have not traveled more than 30 miles away from their home for their entire life.


but what i realized was that i dont believe in the kantian categorical imperative nature of the stay local ideology.  i dont believe that something is ethical or moral if it fits into the formula of: if everyone did action a, the world would be a more peaceful place, and thus everyone *should* do action a.

its like in a wrinkle in time (do you remember that book?) and the kids get to the planet where all the houses are the same and all the kids are all bouncing their balls to the same exact rhythm, and then all the mothers come out of the houses at the same exact time and bring the kids inside.  and they all are acting like robots?

that is what i think of when someone throws a kantian categorical imperative at me. if everyone did it…the world would be a better place.


ok. you ever think of refugees as privileged?  no?  really?  cause they are.  in comparison to the folks who they left behind in that war zone.  the sudanese refugees here in cairo are really privileged.  let me put it in perspective: the capital of south sudan, jemba. has three paved roads.  three.  so what if the sudanese refugees can barely access decent health care are barred from enrolling in egyptian schools, live in ghettos, are harrassed constantly by the police, are suffering from ptsd, seperated from their families- that is the members of their families that are still alive-are ex sex slaves and child soldiers…

but they are privileged…and it was when i realized that that i thought: wtf does privilege mean?

and once i realize they are privileged…then what?


once i realize i am privileged.  that being able to leave a dangerous situation by any means necessary was a privileged act.  then what?

and now years later, happily a mama, partnered, beloved, and living abroad.  happy to live in a place where i feel safer.  happy to create love.  where does privilege fit into this?  is privilege the reason that i am happy or is privilege contributing to my happiness?  am i happy despite my privilege?

is living in a place where i feel reasonably safe a privilege?  hell fucking yes it is.

is living in a place where it is safe to be loved and being able to love a privilege?  yes.

do i have the privilege to determine for myself what is safe for me?  yes.

do i have the privilege to determine that for me and mine it is safer for me to live in the west bank than in chicago?  yes.

am i about to give up any of those ‘privileges’?  nope.

am i a refugee?  absolutely not.

am i a working class black mama with ‘some college’, a us citizen able bodied with access to social class privilege who lives in cairo, egypt on scale with a middle class egyptian family?


this is what i dont get.  why every couple of months do i get in one of these fucking ridiculous conversations about single motherhood vs. partnered motherhood or working locally vs.  globally?

can folks even tell why these fucking conversations are ridiculous?

how do you know the content of my life?  how do you know that my husband isnt abusive?  (he isnt but still…) how do you know the content of my marriage to the extent that you can determine that my partnership is obviously so much more privileged than your singlehood?

and how do you know that me traveling is more privileged than you staying home?

is there a way we can have a conversation about privilege and oppression that makes sense?

it was contemplating this. that i realized that i need to find a more accurate paradigm for figuring out who i center in my organizing…


§ 7 Responses to the privilege of traveling

  • Sandra Miller says:

    glad you got this in print – long overdue rebuttal. Keep telling the truth! people think living abroad is a long luxury vacation so they envy, or irresponsible to leave your homeland (running away from ‘reality’) so they dismiss your firsthand POV that is different than what they hear from US news media. either way, the truth remains ignored. the US is not reality for most human beings in the world who deserve dignity and freedom. Refugees are suffering people, not a small invisible group far away. no doubt, i am privileged to travel and it is extremely humbling. i realize your essay covers many other related points but must let you know your take on this topic is vital and authentic. looking forward to your follow up postings. hope others join in to broaden this overdue conversation.

  • abookwithoutacover says:

    “how do you know the content of my life?”

    ::Jaw drops:: YES! It’s not the first thing we share with a group or even in close organzining circles, since we aren’t supposed to be centering ourselves in the conversation. It’s always a broader movement, a bigger conversation. I’ve often lost myself.



  • nezua says:

    great post. too much assuming going on in general, out here sometimes. we like to box stuff up, file it under categories like “privileged” and then stop thinking about it, or place it on a scale. i’ve never known anything in life to be so cut and dry. anyway, lots of good thoughts, thanks for posting…

  • Ariel Gore says:

    People called me privilege for being a single mama, too!

    Like, “Oh you can just do whatever you want!”

    And I always thought, you know, you can be a single mom on welfare, too! Just leave your partner and head on over the welfare office. (This was pre-“welfare reform” ofcourse)… Can’t do that so easily anymore.

    It’s real and important to understand the ways each of us has it easy and has it difficult in this life. But I notice sometimes that the people who throw around the privilege notion as a dig, as a “how dare you?”, as that kind of thing,–I have noticed that they are usually quite privileged in their own way, and they are just trying to get you to conform to their small version of what they think life can be, and make excuses for their own fears. I think people will always express envy and then somehow dismiss your life as not the righteous one just because they don’t have the courage to do what they want or even know what they want.

    Oo – I guess you hit a nerve with this post! Ha! Because I know I am privileged in so many ways, but I only seem to get called out for it at the weirdest times:
    I am privileged for being an independent mom.
    I am privileged for being a writer / having a creative life.
    For traveling, yes! Always for the traveling.

    And I am thinking, you know, you straight person with your SUV, you can kind of shut up now because I am going exercise my privilege to never speak to you / listen to your shit again.

  • Kathy Kamp says:

    I think part of what needs unpacking about the idea of privilege are assumptions like:

    (1) that is it an inherently bad thing, something which much be done away with (and certainly to feel guilty about)
    (2) that all inequalities are bad (and that a world without privileges would be a better one).

    Clearly there are some privileges that are problematic, but let’s define which those aree.g., part of oppressive systems).

    Also I think we can think more about privilege as a tool–it depends how you use it–it can be used for positive purposes (e.g., negotiating for justice, fighting oppressions). And in doing so, you help deconstruct the unjust systems of privelege, not reproduce them.

    Kisses to Aza. –Kathy

  • mama says:

    –people think living abroad is a long luxury vacation so they envy, or irresponsible to leave your homeland (running away from ‘reality’) so they dismiss your firsthand POV that is different than what they hear from US news media.–
    yes! so true

    yes. ive often lost myself as well. but i dont think that we are supposed to martyrs.

    i wonder what is this tendency toward boxes in our communities?

    i actually have day dreams about pre-welfare reform days 😉
    and i have to say that i am amazed by the ppl who tell me that they could never do what i did. but what they mean is that they dont want to give up what they have for something less certain.

    yeah i think that there is needs to be some…i dont know…more accurate terms. like some folks are just have inborn talent. those talents may give them advantages in life, but that isnt the same as privileges based on structural violence.
    and there are structural privileges that no one needs (like earning millions and millions of dollars off the stock market) and then privileges that should be rights (like healthcare and decent education)

  • bfp says:

    YES, especially on the top part with a wrinkle in time was mentioned!!! I’ve been getting to that point more and more lately–where I’m just thinking–is the point to get everybody to think exactly the same? Or is it to end violence against women of color and their communities (thinking of my own organizing, but it could be applied to all types of organizing). because i think–it trying to get everybody to think exactly the same so that we can ‘be free,’ we recreate the same methods of power and control that allow violence to happen…and remember when you said to me “so what?”–I read that and was flabbergasted–but but but but…

    but, it’s TRUE. so what? we don’t all think the same and what’s more we don’t WANT to all think the same. SO WHAT?

    And, even more importantly–NOW WHAT?

    what does organizing look like when we stop trying to make “everybody must think like me” the goal, and we make “ending violence” the goal instead?

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