Someone tweeted that this piece on HuffPost was the dumbest thing they had read all day, but it has apparently been shared thousands of times, so apparently someone likes it. The piece refers to the recent show trial in North Korea that sentenced a U.S. college student named Otto Warmbier to 15 years of hard labor for stealing a propaganda banner (I wrote about it here and here). Actually, he didn’t steal the banner. He tried to grab the banner from his hotel and decided it was a bad idea and so left it lying on the floor. So he pulled down the banner, which may have cost some North Korean janitor 15 minutes of time, and he got 15 years in a prison camp. Sound crazy? Well, according to HuffPost’s Black Voices, this is what you get from too much white privilege:
As shocked as I am by the sentence handed down to Warmbier, I am even more shocked that a grown man, an American citizen, would not only voluntarily enter North Korea but also commit what’s been described a “college-style prank.” That kind of reckless gall is an unfortunate side effect of being socialized first as a white boy, and then as a white man in this country. Every economic, academic, legal and social system in this country has for more than three centuries functioned with the implicit purpose of ensuring that white men are the primary benefactors of all privilege. The kind of arrogance bred by that kind of conditioning is pathogenic, causing its host to develop a subconscious yet no less obnoxious perception that the rules do not apply to him, or at least that their application is negotiable…
I’m willing to bet my last dollar that he was aware of the political climate in that country, but privilege is a hell of a drug. The high of privilege told him that North Korea’s history of making examples out of American citizens who dare challenge their rigid legal system in any way was no match for his alabaster American privilege. When you can watch a white man who entered a theatre and killed a dozen people come out unscathed, you start to believe you’re invincible. When you see a white man taken to Burger King in a bulletproof vest after he killed nine people in a church, you learn that the world will always protect you.
Let’s just pause here to note that the “unscathed” white man she’s referring to is James Holmes aka the Aurora movie theater shooter. It’s true that Holmes did not get the death penalty because one juror refused to consider it, but according to this CNN report he received 12 life sentences plus (not a joke) 3,318 additional years. It is believed to be the 4th longest prison sentence ever handed down in US history. Frankly, I wish Holmes had gotten the death penalty but it’s a stretch to say he was “unscathed.”
As I’ve said, living 15 years performing manual labor in North Korea is unimaginable, but so is going to a place I know I’m unwelcome and violating their laws. I’m a black woman though. The hopeless fear Warmbier is now experiencing is my daily reality living in a country where white men like him are willfully oblivious to my suffering even as they are complicit in maintaining the power structures which ensure their supremacy at my expense. He is now an outsider at the mercy of a government unfazed by his cries for help. I get it.
This author is saying her life in America and the “hopeless fear” and suffering she experiences is just like living in a North Korean labor camp? I don’t know much about the author but her bio suggests she writes for a variety of websites on issues like this. As far as I know, there are no blogs being started in North Korean labor camps. In fact, the freedom to write the above article is definitive proof her situation is not at all the same as theirs. Any North Korean who tried this would quickly end up in a prison camp. (If you want to know more, Vice News did a video series on North Korean labor camps in Siberia.)
As for Otto Warmbier, he definitely acted foolishly, but young people, especially young men, often act as if they are invincible and untouchable. For instance, a young man robs a convenience store and then walks down the middle of the street with the stolen goods in broad daylight. That’s what Mike Brown did in Ferguson and it obviously wasn’t white privilege that made him feel he could do it (or subsequently hand off said stolen items to a friend so he could more effectively wrestle a cop for his gun). Young people, especially young men, take risks that older, wiser people would never take. Sometimes, unfortunately, taking those risks ends in life-changing consequences, as it has for Warmbier, or even ends their life, as it did for Brown. But being young and male is enough to explain it. I suspect that’s all there is to Otto Warmbier trying to take home a North Korean souvenir.