Tuesday, February 2, 2010

White privilege alert! Paul Shirley writes about Haiti

If you'd never heard of Paul Shirley before now, don't worry, you're not alone. The journeyman basketball player, who had a few tastes of the NBA and who now plays in Europe, has also cultivated a secondary career in blogging and writing for ESPN, since he apparently is quite insightful. A thinker, allegedly.

Well ESPN have decided that they no longer need his services due to the nature of his latest piece, which covered the topic of donating to Haiti. Here are some highlights:

I haven’t donated a cent to the Haitian relief effort. And I probably will not.

I haven’t donated to the Haitian relief effort for the same reason that I don’t give money to homeless men on the street. Based on past experiences, I don’t think the guy with the sign that reads “Need You’re Help” is going to do anything constructive with the dollar I might give him. If I use history as my guide, I don’t think the people of Haiti will do much with my money either.

My wariness has much to do with the fact that the sympathy deployed to Haiti has been done so unconditionally. Very few have said, written, or even intimated the slightest admonishment of Haiti, the country, for putting itself into a position where so many would be killed by an earthquake.

I can’t help but wonder why questions have not been raised in the face of this outpouring of support. Questions like this one:

Shouldn’t much of the responsibility for the disaster lie with the victims of that disaster?

Before the reader reaches for his or her blood pressure medication, he should allow me to explain. I don’t mean in any way that the Haitians deserved their collective fate. And I understand that it is difficult to plan for the aftermath of an earthquake. However, it is not outside the realm of imagination to think that the citizens of a country might be able to: A) avoid putting themselves into a situation that might result in such catastrophic loss of life. And B) provide for their own aid, in the event of such a catastrophe.

Shouldn’t there be some discourse on how the millions of dollars that are being poured into Haiti will be spent? And at least a slight reprimand for the conditions prior to the earthquake? Some kind of inquisition? Something like this?:

Dear Haitians –

First of all, kudos on developing the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Your commitment to human rights, infrastructure, and birth control should be applauded. As we prepare to assist you in this difficult time, a polite request: If it’s possible, could you not re-build your island home in the image of its predecessor? Could you not resort to the creation of flimsy shanty- and shack-towns? And could some of you maybe use a condom once in a while?


The Rest of the World

In the case of the Haitian earthquake, it’s heartening to see people caring about the fates of their fellow men. What is alarming, I think, is the sometimes illogical frenzy toward casting those affected by the earthquake as helpless, innocent souls who were placed on the island of Hispaniola by an invisible force. In the case of some, this analogy might well be accurate; children cannot very well control their destinies. And as far as sympathy goes, much of it should go to those children.

But children are brought into the world by their parents. Those parents have a responsibility – to themselves and to their kids – to provide. They have a responsibility to look around – before an earthquake happens – and say, “I need to improve this situation, because if a catastrophe were to happen, we’d be in bad shape.”

I've edited this a bit for length, but you can read the whole thing here. You get the picture anyway.

Now, Shirley is clearly a bit of a heartless prick, or at least he was feeling rather heartless prick-esque when he decided to write this. But I'm not saying I completely disagree with some of the ideas behind what he says. I do believe, to an extent, that people create their own luck. And I do agree that throwing money at Haiti without some serious structural change to that country is somewhat like patching up a severed limb with a band-aid.

But here's the thing - we are not just talking about a scenario on SimCity here. Haiti is a real place where people - actual people - are dying and starving. Giving aid might stop some people from dying and starving. It's as simple as that, really. If Paul Shirley doesn't wish to donate anything to Haiti, no problem there - it's his money and his decision. But to publish an article that effectively attempts to dissuade readers from donating? That, sir, is pretty f***ed up.

Like I said, I believe to an extent, you make your own luck, and everyone has it within their power to improve their situation to some degree. But you also need to get the right breaks.

Examining Shirley's apparent world-view, you come across a pretty common phenomenon. It's a complete unawareness of white privilege; the assumption that his set of circumstances as a white American male are the norm, as opposed to being in a position of relative power, status and social mobility.

It is a mindset that is dominant across the neo-conservative spectrum of politics, which exalts the so-called "level-playing field" of unchecked capitalism.

It is a world-view that assumes that everyone has the same opportunities to improve their lives.

Of course, taking someone like Paul Shirley as an example, it is clear that he has had some opportunities that not everyone has had. He was born into a white middle-class family in one of the world's wealthiest nations. Nothing wrong with that, obviously, but it makes him better off than at least 90% of the rest of the world. He's also 6 foot 10 inches tall. Now obviously he's worked hard to get where he is, but I have a hunch that if he were my height (5 foot 7), he wouldn't have got that chance to earn a professional basketballer's salary.

Shirley's world-view takes for granted the relatively easy life-choices available to him, but assumes that for a person of colour born into extreme poverty, becoming successful in life is as simple as deciding to be. In other words, "could some of you maybe use a condom once in a while?" What seems like a simple choice to make for Paul Shirley is a different proposition in the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, a country in which even before the earthquake, the poorest of the poor were reduced to eating cakes of mud because there was so little food available. I'm not sure how easy it is for the average person to get hold of contraception in Haiti, but if you can't afford to eat anything but mud, my guess is that you can't afford to buy a condom either.

He might also wish to look at his own nation's historical role in perpetuating Haiti's desperate position. The USA was one of a coalition of nations that enacted a trade embargo on Haiti for much of the 19th century, because the Haitians had the nerve to overthrow their French masters. And it was the USA who propped up the dictatorships of Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier, who bled the country's wealth dry and whose paramilitary forces massacred anyone who dared dissent.

As I have previously, I would urge anyone to read the following two articles that outline the litany of sufferings that Haiti has endured over its history. Jared Diamond examines the environmental factors here , while Bob Corbett looks at social and political factors here.

This is not to absolve Haiti of responsibility for its own failings. The country is virtually a failed state and has deep-seated problems: massive inequality, lack of resources, poor education exacerbated by a massive brain drain during the Duvalier era, governments that seem to be inevitably corrupt and oppressive, and the kind of dangerous criminal underclass that is prone to develop out of such a situation. But if you ask why Haiti has these problems to begin with, you cannot provide the full answer without mentioning the culpability of France and the USA.

For another interesting article about white privilege (albeit a couple of years old), try here. The reaction from readers is worth reading as well.


  1. This man is culturally blind. I won't question his overall character (of he's really a selfish mean person unable to relate to anything that doesn't affect him personally), but his attitude screams- I am sorry to say- "I am a dumb American".

    I am happy to say none of the American people I met, online of offline, is like this- but this is the common image of a person blind to his privilege.

    But the worst thing is: there are so many people who donate money and feel Pity for Haitians- and still aren't much better. Of course, donations are a good thing, and yes, I do believe those people understand the need to help those who suffer. But most of those people are still blind to their privilege. Those are the people who donate because of "mighty whitey" complex, not because of true understanding of a situation. (Once again, it doesn't really matter, if those in need get help- but I just because someone donates money doesn't mean he or she understands white privilege).

    PS-You're right about basketball. My husband was a really talented player when he was around 16 or 17, but he's only 180cm (5'11'') tall, which wasn't enough for a professional career.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. glad to hear that he was fired

  4. Eurasian sensation, this is what a hate about leftist bigots like you. What does this guy being white have anything to do with this? This guy is just an idiot, but you as a far left wing, anti white, anti capitalist man, you can't stop attacking for being a white male. Your post makes you look like a complete and utter moron, and here's why. You--like many other people living on the Continental United States and in Europe--arrogantly assume that these are the only places on the planet, and that since whites are on top here, they must be on top everywhere.

    I'm a white guy living in Hawaii, where whites make up about 10% of the population. Nearly all of the rest is Asian, and they give everyone whose skin isn't the same shade as theirs endless grief about being a "haole", or, for those of you who need a translation, "foreigner". Of course, none of them realize that they're just as foreign to the "Aloha State" as Caucasians--they just go on giving us shit about it. It's not uncommon to hear drivers on the road yell "watch it, you f***ing haole!" Especially in Hawaiian public schools, being white is like having a bulls-eye painted on your forehead.

    So you can understand that when I see a post like this, telling the world that it's a luxury to be white, that I have a tendency to get pissed off.

    . White people are not always on the giving end of racism, and anyone who generalizes like this--the article seems to cry, "white people are racists, even when they pretend not to be!"--is proving that they themselves are a racist. After all, isn't that the term we use for negatively stereotyping a group of people based on ethnicity?

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. If whoever wrote this stripped presentation of Paul Shirley's blog post had presented its ideas in context, then readers would have seen the reasonableness of Shirley's logic. Anyone familiar with Haiti's history knows that Helping the Haitians is something that white people should never do. Ever.

    At the end of the 18th century, San Dominique was a prosperous island country, the very richest in the New World. Its topsoil was supremely rich and enabled an agricultural output surpassing that of all 13 original American colonies combined. Then came the French Revolution, and some of the victorious revolutionaries visited San Dominique and told the blacks there: "Rise up! Kill the white man!" And they did. The blacks took over the country by racial genocide in 1802, with mass murder and mass rape.

    Under black rule, Haiti plunged from the heights of wealth to the lowest depths of poverty. In utter disregard for environment and the sustainable use thereof, they recklessly bred up too large a population, which to procure firewood cut down the island's trees, after which tropical storms washed the island's principal source of wealth, its peerless topsoil, into the sea, gone forever.

    Paul Shirley isn't alone in his assessment of the Haitians. Former CIA director Porter Goss said, of the billions of dollars in US foreign aid, "We’ve been ripped off in Haiti and I don’t see why we should put more money into it. There’s so much corruption that the only way to make sure aid gets to the people is to fly down there yourself with some food, hand it to a Haitian, and watch him eat it in your presence."

    According to the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), Haiti has a spectacularly high level of corruption—high enough to be comical if it weren't real. Significant amounts of money collected for the betterment of the commonweal are routinely misdirected toward the sole benefit of those in power, a fact that has sparked uprisings in Haiti in the past.

    Haitian politics are violent. The long history of oppression by native dictators, such as François Duvalier, has markedly affected the nation. But the event that really destroyed Haiti was its own founding revolution, in which every person with the honesty, the good will, and the competence to have kept the island country prosperous and politically stable were murdered.

    Starvation has been characteristic of overpopulated areas since before history began. We have ample lessons by which to learn that trying to end starvation by feeding the hungry does not work: it never has, and it never will. People fed, and hence happy for the day, tend to celebrate by making babies. The population doubles over the ensuing ten years and then the larger population, no more able and no wiser than its previous generation was, must be fed by outsiders or else face starvation. What's worse than the starvation deaths of a million people? Why, the starvation deaths of MORE than a million people, of course!

    Besides, historically white people have a grudge to settle with the Haitians, for the loss of lives and the loss of wealth.

    I'm not sure why leftists are so politically nearsighted, unless they are hypocrites who are after power. But Paul Shirley made a good point. Because they fired him, I'll no longer watch ESPN, whose supporters, affiliates, and advertisers can go to hell right along with them.