Sunday, June 19, 2016

Check Your First World Privilege

Will Barratt, Ph.D.
Roi Et Rajabhat University

There are two loaded terms here: First World, and privilege. They will be explored in that order.

First, Second, and Third World

The history of the idea of First World and the current use of First World are more than a little different.

The idea of the First, Second, and Third world came from the Cold War identifying each team, First World (USA and Allies) and Second World (USSR and Allies), and non-aligned Third World nations.  This idea of three worlds was a European/North American idea.  Over time and use the phrase Third World has come to mean poor nations.  Now the Third World phrase has been replaced by Developing Nations/Countries, or Less Developed Nations/Countries, or Undeveloped Nations/Countries. Notice the shift from political alliances to economic development. These new names really means that there are a lot of poor people in the country.

The metric of developing, less developed, and underdeveloped are very interesting notions based on the idea of upward economic mobility.  Again this is a European/North American idea.  The assumption that every nation should have a developed economy, and all that entails, needs some reflection.  I live and work in Thailand and we are striving to have a sufficiency economy.  

G20 nations, the First World in economic terms, the national economies that represent 85% of the Gross World Product and 80% of the world trade are: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America, and the EU which is represented by the European Commission.

Here in this blog, First World is about national economies, about the G20 nations. Even in wealthy nations there are poor people, so not all is quite so simple. Family income varies both within and between First World nations.  Also the idea that it is better to be poor in a wealthy country than poor in a poor nation may be both a myth and a reality. People migrate for many reasons, some of those reasons are economic.

In each of these G20 nations that there are marginalized, oppressed, minority people.  This is about those people who have more than enough.


Privilege is an advantage that you have that someone else doesn't. There are several kinds of social class privilege as noted is a previous blog. Economic privilege is about accumulating wealth - earning more, saving more, and reducing expenses. Social and Positional privilege are transactional. We each create privilege in our social interactions with others through how we relate to others.

Economic privilege is when you have more money than others. I hope that you have seen and read all of the wonderful posts and graphics on "If the world were 100 people"

Maslow's hierarchy provides an interesting lens to look at First World problems.  Basic physiological and safety needs are met for many of the First World people - food, water, sanitation, housing, public policing, medical care, transportation, and many other basic needs get covered.  Note that Maslow provides a First World model as he was concerned with First World needs of love, self esteem, and self actualization.  When you are hungry, thirsty, and afraid it is hard to work on your needs for love, self esteem, and self actualization.

In wealthy nations, developed nations, K-12 education is low cost or free.  According to the US National Center for Educational Statistics the average expenditure per student in the USA in constant 2013-2014 dollars was USD $12,401 per year.  Since students are in US public education for 12 years to get a diploma (discussion of HS graduation rates by family income, gender, ethnicity, and parental work and residence history is another topic entirely), any US High School graduate has an education that cost between USD $120,000 to $140,000 (the range reflects annual changes to government support).   This is more than the lifetime earnings of many people on the planet. This is First World economic privilege. 

College costs, even in the US, are government subsidized at public 4-year and community colleges.

Access and cost for education in First World nations is First World privilege. If you have a graduate degree, like 10% of the US citizens over 25, then you have an education valued at between $200,000 and $500,000 depending on tuition, major, college, and degree. That is First World privilege. 

This blog is about social class on campus so I will leave issues of medical care, transportation, and all of the other parts of life to another writer.  I assume that the reader can work out the advantages of economic privilege and medical care, and transportation, and other parts of life.

Consumer Privilege is a special case of Economic privilege.  First world problems dominate the news, because First Worlders pay attention to news media and consume the goods and services advertised therein.  First World tragedies are somehow more newsworthy than Developing Nation tragedies; local news gets more attention than global news.  Ask yourself what news you pay attention to.

Ads on web pages are a First World problem.  Advertisers know a great deal about each of us because of the cookies on our computers, which is why we get targeted ads, so we can spend more money on their product.  Money is a wonderful thing. In doing background reading for this blog on the Bloomberg website, which has a nice rating of colleges by ROI, and I got a popup noting that I use AdBlock and suggesting that using AdBlock will somehow negatively affect me.  I noted that 22 companies tried to give me cookies on that page.  The point is that advertising revenues drive what gets covered and AdBlock stops web based advertising.

Consumer goods, a large percent of the economy in First World economies, are directly related to which world you live in.  Think of college as a consumer good.  Boutique high prestige colleges around the world, both public and private, dominate the market.  Big box campuses, typically public and state colleges in the US, serve the masses.  Having a degree from the US is First World privilege.  Having a boutique name brand degree is even better.

Social privilege is about cultural norms and group membership and how a person or nation is perceived by each of us. I ask the reader to pause for a moment and reflect on their personal reaction to the list of G20 nations.  Go back and look at it again.  I underlined it for your convenience when you scroll up.  Did you perceive some of the nations in a negative way?  Were you surprised that some of those nations were on the list?  Your reaction is part of your perception.  Do citizens from certain nations have more or less prestige in your eyes?  Of course they do.  One story that US citizens tell themselves is that USA is #1, which is demonstrably false.  The assumption of superiority in spite of fact is First World privilege.  Nations not on that G20 list have far less perceived prestige.

We create social privilege when we interact with others.  This is one of the secret handshakes of social class.  Dress in a certain way and you will be perceived in a certain way.  Speak in a certain variety of English with a certain accent and you will be perceived in a certain way.  Come from a certain nation or region and you will be perceived in a certain way.  Perception leads to action.  Both perception and action are part of the social interaction.  The social interaction is the origin of social privilege.

Will you be perceived differently if you are from a G20 nation than if you are from a developing nation?  Of course.  At the time of writing this I live and work as a Professor at a University in Thailand and am asked quite often where I am from.  Like asking someone about their college major, part of the social process is the perception of the answer.

There is a special term in Thai for European foreigners.  And it is positive.  When I lived in China there was a term for foreigners, which was negative.  Social norms, like the language we use, are part of creating hierarchies, which lead to privilege and oppression.

Being from a high prestige nation is First World privilege. 

Positional privilege is seen most clearly in organizations and the military which have a clearly defined hierarchy.  Those on top who get privileges and perquisites that those on the bottom don't get much of anything.  The USA belongs to the G20, the group of wealthy nations.  This creates a certain position in the hierarchy of nations.  I would assume that representatives of the US government get invited to a lot of meetings and parties in Developing Nations, in part for the social privilege for the host, in part for the economic opportunities, and largely because of their positional privilege.

As a faculty member my positional privilege is related to my degree, where I got my degree, where I work, and my academic rank.  And yes these matter, at least among my faculty colleagues.

Check Your First World Privilege

First World problems are a meme, and worth a few minutes of your time to look at.  Making fun of ourselves for our over-consumption, privilege, and general economic wealth is a good thing.  The limited perspective that comes from living in a bubble is a First World privilege problem.

Please have a global perspective that is sensitive to the economic, social, and cultural wealth, or lack of it, in your life.  If you live in the First World, be aware of how economically, socially, and culturally wealthy you are. Please.

tl:dr - people in rich countries have privilege

25+ examples of western privilege is a nice look at privilege