My African friend likes to remind me of my white privilege. It's something I don't mind him reminding me of, regardless of my own First Nations and Mexican American heritage. He’s dark as night and gets his papers checked all the time, and the cops mostly ignore me. My light skin, my blue passport sort some of the challenges of an international. Yet we are in the same boat, as the saying goes: both migrants, allowed to remain in Europe for a time under the same circumstances, and yet migrants near the top of the food chain. My friend and I are in fact, paid to be here, as fully funded doctoral researchers, beneficiaries of what could be considered a quality migrant scheme or a desperate scramble for a local European government to bring in some innovation. Maybe it’s just a lucky break for both of us, or more likely, some combination thereof. Nevertheless, we get paid a survival wage in form of scholarship to produce knowledge, and if all goes well, we’ll eventually bring some fame and acclaim to our small-town university. Our salaries aren't anything to write home about, and though we might be earning more than folks on the other continents, we're only just surviving here, though survival is relative, as is privilege.
Over the holidays, we both returned to our families, as immigrants are wont to do. No, as immigrants have an absolute need to do. Not only must we travel back, to assuage our families’ fears of having lost us to the elitist world of European academia, we need to reconnect in our own selves to hard truths of the real world. As researchers in the castle on the hill we are often so burdened with the study, with paper-writing, generating, analyzing, interpreting data, wrapped up the networking, conferences, and general challenges of pursuing higher degrees. It's easy to lose track of actual life challenges that the others face out there. Isolated as we are in this foreign country, in this small town, in the cold interiors and uncommunicative, almost anti-social environment of a computer science department, we might start to believe that everything is ok. If only we get our draft paper finished on time. Upon stepping out, the cold hard of the outside world becomes evident, as do the privileges and discriminations that accompany. A stark reminder of this, the white guy has returned to the semester, the black guy, well, he's still stuck in Africa.
Interesting that we think of Africa as a place of the poorly managed, yet here we are in a relatively advanced European nation, and it seems just as backward. Here the student visa renewal process should take three months...no, wait, that will be six months. Um, actually now its 10 months? Sucks to be you if you're black at home and need to get on a plane to come back to university. Even if you have a paid contract, have been active since several years, have done everything by the book, paid all the fees, filed all the paperwork, answered all the questions properly, fulfilled all the requirements, you’re still in limbo. OK, I get it, there's thousands more migrants who put in the papers, and the workers at the immigration office have their hands full. But it's their job, to process all those papers, and on time. Just as it is our job, to research, write, publish, add value to the local university, and bring in that fame and acclaim. We are all part of this immigration machine, we do our best, or we should, anyway, to make a better life for ourselves, our families, and contribute to this place we all inhabit.
So why am I writing this from the comfort of my adopted home, and my friend still scrambling the madness dance of Afro-European bureaucracy to get back to school? We had the same problem, in fact. At the airport I was stopped from boarding by an alert on the computer. My visa from the immigration department is also expired. I also filed the forms, paid the fees, and I have my rent contract and the papers from our university and, and, and... The guy at the airline counter, in his moment of power, tells me "no, I can't let you board" because regardless that I can show all the receipts from the immigration office and my national health insurance card and my matriculation papers, there is no stamp in my passport. No stamp, no boarding pass, no joy. Until I insist on talking to the manager, who comes over and after a short discussion, swipes his own privileged card like a magic wand, and the white guy with the blue passport is whisked through security. No one else on my journey back cares about my receipts or matriculation paper, my story. I got the privilege, I'm free to go.
Recently in this small town, I was out shopping, with my partner. Just down the street to the supermarket, we went to get some things. Another black African was wandering the aisles, arms overloaded with essentials, and mumbled to me something about, what? Not actually having enough money to buy that stuff? I looked him in the eyes and said what I say to every other panhandler, "Nah man, I got no money for you." It wasn't an apology, it was more an annoyed dismissal: he was accosting me in my consumer reverie. I was trying to remember what I need, and looking for the Nutella on the shelves. I saw him out the corner of my eye, shuffling on to the next customer who was trying to avoid him. I found the Nutella, but I couldn’t take it, add it to my collection of things. "That guy doesn’t even have essentials," I thought, "and I want to buy Nutella?" Of course I didn't go give him the 3 euros 60 that Nutella would have cost me. That spare change is in fact my treat money, saved from my subsistence wage, my slice that I've carved out for myself in my own hard immigrant existence.
I’ve been that guy, or so I’ve told myself, that guy but different, and it’s hard to get past the idea, “got no money? Get a job. Can’t find work? Go somewhere you can.” That’s what I did, anyway, when I had no money. OK, way back in the day, when I was a kid I thought I don’t need to work. I hitchhiked around making music, panhandling for spare change, until the hypocrisy of not needing a job dawned on me: I still needed someone to have a job, to have that change to give to me. Since then, I’ve been industrious, and somewhat independent. When I ended up poor, I mean, really no money poor, stranded in a faraway place, I could always find work. Permit or not, paid in cash or food or a place to stay, there was always work. There was always a place to sleep, and other migrants who’d tell me what was up; we learned together how to make it. Then once in Tel Aviv, I got picked up in an immigration sweep, while I was waiting at the regular spot in town with the other labourers. The bosses would drive by in the morning and pick some guys for the day, and I had a regular gig with some Russian welders, installing highway crash barriers and putting up rain roofs at schools in the Hasidic neighbourhoods. The cops arrived early in a fleet of black vans, and took everyone downtown. I sat in the holding cell with the other Africans. Until they called my name, and I stood before a judge while he berated me “Get a Visa!” and then released me on my own recognisance. A lot of those black Africans in the cell wouldn’t be so lucky. They’d get shipped back where they came from, as had happened to many of them before. They’d have to make a decision, to start the whole migrant thing all over again, or stay poor and black at home. My white skin, blue passport privilege, again. I was that guy, but different.
Thinking back, it sucks all around. My own privilege, how easy for me, and I take advantage of it! Or is it just, how much tougher my life would be if I was black African? I wonder about that guy in the supermarket, how do I even know he's African? It's just a supposition on my part, because the colour of his skin, and the fact that he can't go straight to the checkout and pay for what he needs, or even what he wants. Because that's just how it is here in this place. I brush him off and think, “Get a job dude, don’t be begging here. What about your dignity?!” But I know there’s no guarantee, that he knows what’s up or is even able. Mine is an intellectual privilege as well, unburdened as I am by drug and alcohol abuse, or mental health issues that I’ve seen for myself drive homelessness and destitution. And this guy, how could he know I'm also a 'poor' immigrant? I look a lot like the locals do, I'm searching for the luxury sweet stuff. He can't know that’s the cheap substitute for chocolate that we get, because as students, we can’t afford much luxury here either. Luxury is relative, like survival, and privilege. I wonder that I'll make a few phone calls and write some emails, try and figure out what my friend who’s stranded on the other continent needs to sort his paperwork. Even if it cost me some money to get him back, that would be ok. For he's the African I know, the African I want in my life. He’s not the one in the supermarket, who reminds me too, the immigrant I am, what I clearly need be reminded of, the privilege of my white skin, my blue passport.