By Romesh Hettiarachchi –
During my visit to Sri Lanka last year, I heard many Sri Lankan communities across the island express grave reservations about “The Diaspora”. For some Sinhalese, “The Diaspora” is dominated by Tamils who uncritically support the Tamil Tigers and their quest to create a separate mono-ethnic Eelam. I also heard from groups of Tamil Sri Lankans living in war affected communities who thought The Diaspora has forgotten them because of their belief that “The Diaspora” ignores the importance of community development in the war-affected areas.
Although I continue to struggle to understand why these sentiments are expressed, it may be that many Sri Lankans do not identify with the positions taken by the global Diaspora. To these individuals, The Diaspora ought to solely facilitate and finance community development and should not shape international opinion regarding the historical and current political challenges faced on the island. As a member of the Diaspora, let me address some of the misconceptions behind this perspective.
Regardless of ethnicity, most individuals in the Diaspora are physically, mentally and psychologically disconnected from the realities of life experienced by their original people and the communities to which they live alongside (the “Diaspora Disconnect“). In the Sri Lankan context for instance, members of the Diaspora have relatively fewer difficulties in accessing water and sanitation facilities, fair access to employment opportunities and an impartial legal system relative to their original communities in Sri Lanka. Rarely do members of the Diaspora face restrictions in their freedom of speech or live in communities where one in four people in the community carry weapons.
Due to the Diaspora Disconnect, the Diaspora is not exposed to the political, social, economic, and environmental factors that constantly influence perspectives in the original communities. Although opinions in the Diaspora may vary, there are few incentives for opinions in the Diaspora to change or be challenged. Views in the Diaspora do not change in accordance with views in the Original Community. However, by virtue of being born in and residing in countries possessing more international political clout than Sri Lanka, the Diaspora accumulates special advantages, rights and benefits in asserting their perspectives to shape international political opinion with respect to Sri Lanka than their original communities.
This is not idle academic chatter. I am far more aware of the privileges I may enjoy as a member of the Diaspora after visiting communities across the island. These privileges may include:
- promoting or asserting racist and prejudicial attitudes under academic and legal theories developed for widely different contexts
- talk about what life is like back home without recognizing that life back home means very different things to different communities
- discussing how other Sri Lankan communities think and act without being informed by the experiences of those other Sri Lankan communities
- talking about issues in Sri Lanka without taking advantages of opportunities to visit the island
- formulating policies and strategies without listening to other differing voices from other Sri Lankan communities
- analyzing the challenges facing Sri Lankan communities by using concepts and discourses that a) may not be understood by the original communities and b) adapted to the context and challenges faced by the Sri Lankan community
- having false expectations about the speed of progress based on my experiences living and working in the Diaspora and without accommodating for the challenges of local bureaucracies
- supporting narratives I personally favor by portraying inaccuracies about other narratives
- shaping opinions about challenges faced by various Sri Lankan communities without also discussing a) the perspectives of these communities to my views or b) discussing the practicality of my proposed solution
- speaking solely about the experiences of my community without highlighting or discussing the experiences of an Other community
- developing strategies that directly or indirectly affect Sri Lankan communities while remaining unaffected by any negative repercussions of those strategies
- have amazing tourism experiences in Sri Lanka without taking a moment to learn about some of the difficulties faced by its citizenry in other communities
Recognizing these privileges does not mean I exercise these privileges. It also does not mean that some of these privileges may be linked to other aspects of my identity. Having said that, I do believe many of these privileges may not unique to me and are in fact shared by significant populations in the Diaspora.
Shortcomings of the Privilege Discourse
If true, I can certainly understand why Sri Lankans living on the island resent the Diaspora and the privileges they enjoy when engaging with their original communities particularly when people on the ground disagree with and do not identify with the approach adopted by the Diaspora. However while I do recognize the privilege I have as a member of the Diaspora, it is equally as important to acknowledge the shortcomings of any conversation about privilege:
- Perspectives solely focused on privilege are premised on the assumption that the propagated stereotype accurately reflects reality. This is not necessarily true. For instance, not all members of the Diaspora are privileged in the same ways I am. Inaccurate stereotypes quickly lead to the less privileged having emotional reactions to the name of a group (“The Diaspora”), the ascribing of particular characteristics to the Diaspora and a negative evaluation of those characteristics. Such actions are features of prejudice.
- Those most attached to the concept of privilege rarely recognize the possibility that their perspectives are skewed by their own unacknowledged privileges and prejudices. For example, few critics of the Diaspora in Sri Lanka recognize that “The Diaspora” plays critical roles in financially supporting their relatives in Sri Lanka. Moreover, the Diaspora would not be filled with such a diversity of political opinions if “The Diaspora” did not care about their original communities.
- Rarely are proponents in the privilege discourse open to the possibility that they might be wrong. The conversation about privilege is structured as a mission to validate ones own prejudices, opinions, biases and assumptions. In over eight years of being involved in conflict resolution and anti-racism initiatives, I have never heard anyone say “I now recognize the privilege I perceived you having is not an accurate reflection of reality. You and your group do not have the privilege that I thought you and your group had. I am sorry for my mistake.”
These shortcomings mean that conversations about Privilege create power dynamics that emphasize the expression of viewpoints. As a consequence when disagreements occur, participants may choose to resent in silence about their disagreements, express the disagreement and walk away, or, in the case of friends, result in irreparable breaches of trust, regardless of the length of the friendship or the brevity of conversation. Seldom do conversations about Privilege feature a commitment to effectively listen, understand and change attitudes.
The failure to acknowledge the shortcomings of the Privilege Discourse may mean that at least one participant uses the concept of Privilege to legitimize racial and prejudicial attitudes. The Privilege Discourse is the equivalent of the (anti-) intellectual sledgehammer; a tool capable of causing deep trauma to individuals and communities if wielded inconsistently and recklessly, especially in communities recovering from conflict.
Developing New Discourses
The shortcomings of this discourse do not mean I should not recognize that I may have benefited from opportunities that I did not entirely earn. I should. The shortcomings of the discourse also do not mean it is not valuable to have individual and community reflections on how our perspectives are skewed by the privileges and experiences of our original and Diasporic communities. It is valuable.
I only mean to say it is easy to list various privileges that one group has over another and lose sight of the fact that it negates ally building or that these lists impose guilt on people. Some of the most effective alliances I have led and been involved in were with individuals who did not acknowledge any or all their privileges but whose commitment, talents and leadership were absolutely critical to the success of the initiative. The companionship and friendship of these individuals, through better and worse, is in and of itself a very rare privilege.
In a conversation about Diaspora Privilege, there is a corresponding obligation to discuss how the privileged Diaspora and the less privileged original communities can work together to either increase access to the privileges enjoyed by the Diaspora or alternatively undermine the structures creating the privileges of the Diaspora. My next article shall elaborate on how the Diaspora has reacted to such opportunities by being: the Apathetic Observer, the Conflict Enabler and the Peace Architect.
My sincere gratitude goes out to all those who provided valuable and constructive feedback on the ideas behind this article. I am truly appreciative. – Read the background to this series of articles here .