Thursday, August 12, 2010
Out of the pot, into the fire: How hierarchy defines our lives
But as I felt less cultural separation between myself and the Zambians around me--of course we still came from different backgrounds, but I no longer felt like a complete outsider--I noticed a strange thing.... I was adapting more to the class hierarchies of Zambian society. Instead of chatting with guards and bus drivers, I offered them curt greetings and hurried on my way, trying to avoid the inevitable discussion of my relationship status that I'd learned would follow. I found myself referring to domestic workers in local terms, as a "garden boy" and "maid," despite finding these terms pejorative, and using "She doesn't even speak English!" to express that someone was uneducated to my housemate. And honestly, I had no idea why. The less I saw my middle class Zambian friends as separate from myself, the more I was adopting their way of organizing the world into "other" and "same." As I saw things less in terms of me versus them, developed country versus undeveloped, white(ish) versus black, the more I saw them as educated versus not, laborer versus professional, economically comfortable versus poor. I was absorbing a new set of hierarchies and division to replace the old, and it felt as natural as breathing.
There are many misconceptions about developing countries, especially African ones, that I hope to address in a future post. But one of the most pernicious is that everyone is poor, destitute, and miserable. Far from it. Plenty of Zambians, especially urban ones, are middle class, comfortable, and caught in between the same appreciation of their good fortune and striving dissatisfaction that so many Americans face. And very often these individuals seem to define themselves in contrast to those that are not, just as much as we define ourselves in contrast to our vision of them. Why is that? Is it human nature for us to make sense of our landscape through hierarchy? Does our wealth mean nothing if we are not richer than? Is our education useless if we're not smarter than? Or is it the insidious effect of Colonialism, still boiling away, in which class and ethnic divisions were often encouraged in order to better control Colonial lands? (For more on this, see Mahmood Mamdani's wonderful book Citizen and Subject, about how the British encouraged hierarchical and authoritarian local rule in South Africa in order to better oppress the Africans they sought to dominate.)
If we rid ourselves of one form of oppression, will another replace it? Is hierarchy truly as natural to us as breathing?