Monday, July 2, 2012

Today's Peeve: White Whine/First World Problems

"That is such a first world problem". "I know, I know, white whine."

It's hard to keep track, but I think I started noticing these phrases maybe a little over a year ago, maybe longer. On the Internet comment boards and among my friends at first, although as of last week Margaret Wente (a notorious social conservative Globe & Mail columnist – just try her piece on the Toronto Slutwalk for a [bad] taste of what she's about) used a composite of them in her article on why Anne-Marie Slaughter shouldn't have bothered talking about middle-class women's contemporary struggle to work and raise kids, in her piece, I have 'white people's problems,' and you probably do too.

(WARNING: Non-social conservatives should try to limit their daily Wente intake as overexposure tends to result in serious bouts of Luxan hyper-rage or going Super Saiyan.)

Basically, I despise these phrases in nearly all of their manifestations, and not just because Wente used them (although later I'll get back to why I think her column is particularly significant). I hate it especially when my otherwise socially-minded and justice-oriented friends and comrades use them because ultimately these phrases in their daily use are racist, classist, and reinforcing of the exact structures that they are apparently supposed to be criticizing.

Let's break it down:

White Whine (or "white people's problems", as Wente styled it): Apparently supposed to be used to describe things which are associated with white privilege and are therefore not truly "problems" at all, or at least are trivial ones. Let's look at top five current entries on the White Whine twitter:
1. Homeless guy at the park is pushing the double-wide stroller my wife wants. WTF #whitewhine

2. Icing my feet after a long day of shopping in Miami :( #whitewhine

3. THIRD day in a row Pinterest images won't load for me! #whitewhine

4. "Five boats and my parents won't let me take out any of them." #whitewhine #firstworldproblems

5. "I hate when foreigners come here and complain we're racist. If you don't like it, u can leave. THNX" #whitewhine
Of those five, I think we can agree that only one of them, the last one, is legitimately a white privilege-specific problem - it's just about how hard it is to be racist. That's pretty much white privilege all over.

But the vast majority of examples for this phrase being used have exactly fuck-all to do with being white. They are much more often like one through four, which are about wealth and class privilege, on a spectrum from "rich enough to have leisure access to the Internet", which describes the majority of (though by no means all) people in developed nations, to "rich enough to have five boats", which applies to a vastly smaller group of people. But not a single one of those first four tweets is white person or white privilege-specific.

But, you say, surely you know that part of white privilege is the increased likelihood of personal and familial wealth? And you must also realize that white people, by dint of their privileged racial status, are more likely to be equally clueless about their other social privileges?

Well, yeah.

But what are we really doing when we classify "rich people problems" under "white people problems"? Because while being white is a good way to get a leg up economically in white-dominated cultures, it's not a guarantee. Poor white people exist! Rich non-white people do too! It's not that I'm annoyed about white people being picked on (seriously, I'm not), but I'm annoyed about the way that we are reinforcing a narrative of whiteness which very specifically erases poor white people and rich POC/indigenous people. (And remember, in these scenarios, "rich" means "wealthy enough to use the Internet for leisure purposes" which in my country includes everyone from the ultra rich down to the working class and in some cases working poor - we are erasing fuckloads of people here.)

Suddenly the trivial frustrations of daily life for many people are being demarcated as especially and exclusively white-owned. While these aren't the most fun part of life, they are part of life, part of the human experience, but we've created a narrative in which they only belong to certain people. Anyone else who experiences annoyance over relatively trivial issues (like this one, also a recent #whitewhine tweet: When you ask the sales associate if there are any more sizes in the back and the answer is "no" - because only white people shop for clothing?) is now "acting white".

And remember who uses these phrases for the most part: white people. I put this kind of racial self-deprecation right up there with liberal white guilt and hipster racism: stuff that white people to do shift attention from their culpability and privileged entitlement while simultaneously going through a pretense of acknowledging it (more or less consciously).

You know what a white person problem is? "There are too many shades of concealer that match my skin perfectly! How will I choose!" or "Why isn't there a White History Month??" or any stupid thing any white person has every said about affirmative action programs. Being racist is a white person problem. Being rich (or middle-class, if "rich" is boggling your sensors), in and of itself, is not.

First World Problems: You'd think this one wouldn't bother me, right? Because my bonnet-bee before was that "white whine" keeps getting used to describe issues of (global) wealth over race, and "first world problems" totally fixes that, right?

What can I say - I'm not easily satisfied.

The first thing I need to point out is that "white whine/white people's problems" and "first world problems" are used synonymously. "First world problems" is literally the subtitle for the White Whine blog. Urban dictionary defines "white people's problems" like so: [T]hese problems affect Americans in the middle to upper class. This is when your life is so amazing, that you make shit up to be upset about. [...] This is in sharp contrast to real problems, experienced by people in other countries. (Emphasis mine.) Which is pretty much how it gets used, although it has been expanded to other developed countries, including Canada, Australia, the UK, etc.

So now we have a case where "first world" = "white" = "moderately to extremely wealthy". Rather than addressing the issues I have with "white whine" on its own, this addition just magnifies the whole damn problem. "First world" (an outdated and wonky term in its own right) applies to nations, not people. Take it from this Canadian, plenty of people living in "first world" nations have "third world" problems, especially if they are POC or indigenous people. Poverty, exploitation, marginalization, abuse, violence, and deprivation all exist here and must not ever be swept aside or over-looked (although we routinely do). And, again, although white people by virtue of their white privilege in a white-dominated society are going to have disproportionate advantages over non-white people (oh yes), it is still inaccurate and harmfully normative to paint a picture in which white people have exclusive domain over wealth and leisure. Again, not because it's unfair to rich white people, but because it's unfair to poor white people and non-poor POC, who are being erased or, especially in the case of middle-class and up POC, fit into a box defined by whiteness in exchange for the social privileges of wealth.

And, on the flip-side, when we define "first world" by whiteness and wealth, guess what we end up defining "third world" by? I mean, I know I just made the point that POC and indigenous people are more likely to experience destitution and deprivation, especially on a global scale, but as with whiteness and wealth, there is a difference between acknowledging an unjust-but-real trend and creating a normative expectation. Norm: things which are statistically common given existing social conditions; normative: things which are reinforced as what ought to be most common given current social values. (Further definition here.)

The use of "first world problems" (and "white whine") may start from the first, but in their casualness and lack of nuance and precision, they quickly become the second. We are not just describing reality (especially because we're being so inaccurate), we are actively constructing a normative version of it - what we think the world looks like and, by extension (because of the lack of accompanying critical framework), what we think it is supposed to look like.

Chimamanda Adichie explains it better than I can, in The Danger of a Single Story (video with transcript):
Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning, pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa. A single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her, in any way. No possibility of feelings more complex than pity. No possibility of a connection as human equals.


There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is "nkali." It's a noun that loosely translates to "to be greater than another." Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali. How they are told, who tells them, when they're told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.

"Telling the story of another person" is what these phrases do by omission, because we have set everything up in mutually-exclusive pairs (rich and poor, of colour and white, first and third world) and then assigned them to mutually-exclusive columns (rich, white, and first world; poor, of colour, and third world). It's not like people in wealthy industrialized countries have any real issues of their own. It's all latte spillage and the wrong colour on our beemers! And absolutely nobody in the hell-pits we call the "Third World" could be a real human being with real problems, some deadly serious and some just as trivial as anyone else's. No, it's just whole continents of people subsisting on dirt and their own tears! Disaster porn, in other words.

And then you see the white people who are getting so used to these phrases, so comfortable with their own privilege, that they begin use them with pride. They recognize that it's good to be on top, even (especially?) if there's a bit of good-natured roast that goes along with it. Better to be the white kid with the first world problems than the alternative, right?

As self-deprecating middle-class white people (or 'enlightened' mockers of other middle-class white people), all we have done is retold the story in which to the 'loser' go the spoils and to the 'winner', a Pyrrhic moral victory. White people, as spoiled and entitled as we are, still end up on top in all the ways that really matter to us.

And then there's the other problem. (What, you thought I was done?) The Wentian problem, if you will, which is the part where we shoot ourselves in our self-deprecating, self-righteousness collective foot. Or let someone like Wente do it after we've loaded the gun.

Because along with the insincere and condescending view that "real" problems only happen in other, poorer countries, comes the familiar old derailing tactic, Don't you have more important issues to think about? and Why are you concentrating on X when Y is so much more important?.

We've as much said it: all trivial problems are white, rich person problems, by virtue of that person's apparent whiteness and wealthiness. Some twisting of logic later, and there's a new face on the same old argument: all problems of white, rich (and remember, on a global scale "rich" means middle-class!) people are trivial (or at least the problems that your opponent is trying to invalidate at that moment).

Which isn't to say that certain social rights discourses (women's rights? gay rights? ring a bell?) haven't been appropriated and dominated by white, middle-class activists, generally to the exclusion of the more marginalized people affected by those concerns, even when they were the ones at the forefront of the original movements. (Stonewall, anyone? Sojourner Truth, Audre Lorde, I could go on.) These are very important, legit criticisms.

Then again, people like Wente only bring up "marginalized people with real problems" when trying to shut down debate about other, different, but not irrelevant issues, like the current state of normative gender roles in developed countries, and their associated emotional and financial burdens. She certainly doesn't have many columns discussing "non-white people's problems", as she might call them. This strategy isn't about legitimate concerns - rather, it relies on the same tired and patronizing stereotypes about the helpless, faceless impoverished as our simplistic notions of "first" and "third world" problems, rather than a genuine awareness of ways in which existing social justice campaigns or discourses have been sidelined by white or wealth privilege.

None of that is new - it's an old tactic going under a new name, which we play into every time we use these phrases. After all, Wente's use is hardly idiosyncratic:
There’s an expression my husband and I use whenever we catch ourselves griping about unimportant stuff. It might sound racist and sexist, but you’ll get the point. “That’s a white people’s problem,” we say.

Some examples of white people’s problems are running out of Starbucks coffee at the cottage, or your kid not getting into Dal. Barring catastrophic illnesses and accidents, most of the problems of the upper-middle class – whatever their skin colour – are white people’s problems. They are the kind of problems that 99 per cent of the human race can only dream of having.
(Emphasis mine.)
And when the social justice-minded of us start to sound like Margaret frickin' Wente, that's when you know there's a problem.

A real one.

To sum up: If you are a white person and you are going to call something "white whine", make sure it is actually racist. If you live in the top economic tier of a wealthy industrialized nation and you call something in your life a "first world problem", make sure it doesn't trivialize the reality of global inequality. And for god's sake stop treating them like they obviously mean the same thing.

Maybe "rich people problems" is less edgy, but at least it's got in the package what it says in the label.


  1. Hiya - this is a really cool observation.

    I've not come across whitewhine before, but I am fond of firstworldproblems. As a meme, it does at least invite a level of self-awareness about "problems" vs real problems.

    But you're right - it is a problematic phrase in pretty much every sense, both the linking of white/first world with "inevitably superhappyrichcontent" and the sense that The Deprived People are only ever sad about their grand tragedies instead of being pissed off by mundane silly things.

    So very good food for thought. And I'll try and think of some alternatives to firstworldproblems.

  2. I just love you and your writing......


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