The Paradox of Privilege

The other day someone in New York asked me where I live, likely expecting me to say Harlem, Brooklyn, or maybe even Washington D.C. Instead I said, “I live in the Netherlands.”

In typical, no longer surprising fashion, his eyes bulged, with his curiosity quickly turning to confusion. “The Netha-LANDS. Why on Earth do you live there?” As a Black American woman who lives in a small European country that many Americans have difficulty distinguishing from Denmark, I’m always prepared for this question. “I fell in love with Amsterdam a few years ago and decided to move there,” I responded.

Turning to his friend to continue the conversation about me, he explained, “She moved to the Netha-Lands by choice. And she wasn’t even taken there by a slave ship. Can you believe that?”

Now, slave ship humor isn’t really my thing. But I took the bait, stepping ever so delicately on my soapbox. “The slave ships are what brought us here to the United States,” I explained. “And it’s here that so many of us remain enslaved. It’s my freedom that enabled me to leave this country, and my privilege that allows me to live where I choose. So I gladly take advantage.”

“That’s nice,” he said, politely ending the conversation that already lasted longer than he expected. If only he understood that it’s his blackness in America that limits his freedom. And it would be his American nationality that could make him free almost everywhere else.

When I decided to move to the Netherlands, I had a number of questions to consider. Where would I live? Would it be possible to make new friends? Could I learn Dutch? And although I wondered if I’d be able to settle in the country, it never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to try. Because in the Netherlands and most other countries, my American passport grants me an extraordinary amount of access.

Unlike the U.S., where my skin color is a key identifier of my place in society, outside of my native country it’s my nationality that appears to matter far more than my blackness, my natural hair, and even my (occasionally vocal) anti-European sentiments. All I have to do is say a few words in my easy-flowing American accent, flash that blue passport, maybe mention something about New York City, Barack Obama or Stevie Wonder, and doors open like I’m stepping on a black mat in front of a supermarket.

In general, if you come from a western nation and share your nationality with mostly white people, you have far fewer hoops to acquire European residency rights than individuals who are born in the southern hemisphere, where you’ll find mainly black and brown people. In fact, European immigration laws pretty blatantly label certain migrants as “undesirable,” making it nearly impossible for people of color to even enter European countries, much less acquire residency or citizenship. While these preferential laws for westerners may have been established to benefit the European diaspora, i.e., the United States and Australia, Black Americans fall into a lucky category of accidental beneficiaries.

us-passport
Image: Stock photo

For example, with a U.S. passport, a Black American can enter and remain in the European Union for three months without a visa, permit, or special letter from a president. We just show our passports, get a fresh stamp, and go on our way as unbothered tourists. If we should be mistaken for Africans without American nationality and asked for justification for walking freely on the street, we need only to clarify to the authorities that, while we are Black, we are not the “undesirable Black.” We’re American in this situation.  (You might want to drop the African American). Said authorities might then say, “oh, you’re American? Okay then.”

And yes — it’s that wrong, and it’s that blatant.

Since I planned to stay in the Netherlands for longer than three months, I entered the country on a student visa, which was easy to acquire since I was pursuing a Master’s degree at a local university. But when that visa expired, I would be in trouble, potentially tossed into the ranks of the many other undocumented individuals who had no legal right to remain in the country. Fortunately, since I was starting a business at the time, I could apply for residency under the Dutch American Friendship Treaty (DAFT). As long as I had enough money in the bank, I was required to show very little documentation to be granted another two years of freedom in the Netherlands.

Here’s the tricky part: I didn’t have enough money at the time. So again, I feared that my poverty status would trump my American privilege.  After the immigration officer informed me of my denied application, with a shaky voice, I asked, “so uh, how long do I have before I have to leave the country?”

She replied, “Well, technically you have three weeks. But since you have American nationality, no one will really bother you about it. If you overstay, you might only have an issue the next time you return to the country.”

So while I planned to make this loophole work for me until I could get my finances and other life circumstances in order, I thought to myself, “but does she know that I’m Black?” It was quite a feeling when I remembered that it wouldn’t matter either way.

As Black people in America, we’re often led to believe that life in the U.S. is as good as it gets because racism is everywhere. And indeed, racism is everywhere. But many people don’t realize that, when overseas, our nationality can carry some special weight, regardless of our race, politics, or economic status. No one knows that I refuse to pledge allegiance to anyone’s flag. No one cares that I align myself with refugees and asylum seekers long before I would associate with the loud American tourists in Amsterdam. No one even asks how I feel about the Dutch history of colonialism and enslavement of my African ancestors. They only care about that blue passport, which I proudly carry through airports with only an occasional touch of shame.

That blue passport and the loopholes of privilege it affords have allowed me to travel freely to most parts of the world, settle in my country of choice, and even make some international blunders along the way (like that time I probably should’ve been arrested in Suriname). I don’t take it for granted. Rather, I prefer to take full advantage of my privilege.

I like to affectionately refer to this grey area of American privilege as my reparations. And every time I pass through those immigration lines in any part of Europe, I hope to see increasingly more of us taking advantage of the few privileges we get as Black Americans, adding stamps to our blue passports, and cashing those reparations checks that are long overdue.

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