Even though life abroad has many challenges, there’s a reality we often don’t talk about. I’ve recently been reminded that I benefit from a certain favorable bias or privilege afforded to me as a white, English-speaking foreigner living overseas.
Yes, occasionally (rarely) I experience discrimination because I’m a woman, an American, and a Christian. But, more often, I’m given a role of honor. I’m offered tea and friendship at every turn. I’m led to the front when attending special events. When I work with a team of librarians, my local colleagues automatically look to me to be the leader. Even when one of them is presenting an idea to the group, I catch her watching for my reactions. Whether I want it or not, I have certain privileges and power.
I’m wrestling with this reality. Because I am a consultant, I rightly enter this culture as an expert. I’m supposed to have knowledge, skills, and experiences to share. I like having those recognized. But if I’m not careful, I can easily slip into enjoying the privileges I’m given to the detriment of myself, my local colleagues and the actual goal of my work here.
How do I combat this? An important first step is to acknowledge that my local colleagues are the real experts in their culture, their language, and in how libraries work in this context. I can help them grow in certain areas; I can share skills and knowledge they want to learn; I can help them develop a grander vision for library services than they may currently have because I can show them what’s possible. But, they are the ones who can take these ideas and translate them into what works in their specific libraries. To help local librarians develop their libraries into places that transform their communities, there are two questions I keep asking myself:
- How can I best provide the support they want (not what I think they need)?
- How can I get out of the way and let them thrive?
Sometimes this means facing my own implicit biases. Sometimes I’ve been caught by surprise by a sense of superiority I didn’t realize I had. Some additional questions I’ve had to ask myself:
Do I really believe my local colleagues are good librarians?
When I’m in a group with both other expats and local librarians, do I pay more attention to those who are “like me”?
Do I appreciate the fact that there’s an implicit bias in the fact that our meetings are in English, not Arabic? Yes, it’s because I’m weak in Arabic and my local colleagues are much better at English, but it automatically puts me in a superior position because it’s easier for me to express myself than it is for them.
Do I take the time to let non-native English speakers put together their thoughts, and do I really listen to them?
Do I not only accept but even welcome the times my local colleagues disagree with me, knowing that I might be wrong about what’s best practice in this situation?
It’s not easy to navigate this. I’m continually learning to give up the privileges of being right, of being the expert. I’m learning to rejoice when one of the librarians disagrees with me. I’m learning to speak to their needs, not what I want for them.
This is the key: I’m learning. And ultimately, as we all learn from each other, we’ll be able to see transformation in the communities all of us, local and foreign, want to serve.
About the Author: Libby is an IDEAS Associate and professional librarian. She currently resides in Jordan and works with libraries in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Enjoy other blogs by Libby, such as Mysteries Around the World.