"Developed world" ≠ "unprejudiced world"

25 July 2013

Recently, I've been coming across a misconception that I'd like to address – that prejudices like racism and sexism don't exist in the so-called “developed” world.

I told some friends yesterday about some blatant sexism another friend of mine has been facing in her job in an investment bank in London.

“Seriously? In the UK?! That's unbelievable!”

Yes, believe it or not, sexism exists in the UK. Crazy, eh? You mean it didn't disappear after the Industrial Revolution?

Another example. One of the worst examples of outright sexism, or racism, or whatever you want to call it, that I've experienced came from a lawyer. Instead of putting out his hand to shake mine at a meeting, he gave me a 20 euro note, and told me to get him an avocado sandwich.

“Oh, you're not a secretary? Err... great. I'm still hungry though. And thirsty, actually. A coke would be great.”

And he, this great human rights lawyer, was from the United States.

One last story. A British friend of mine recently got back from Saudi Arabia, and he commented that while it was a good trip on the whole, he found it difficult to be in a place with such terrible domestic violence and terrible women's rights. Of course, women have far more civil liberties in the UK than those in Saudi Arabia, but are Brits really in a position to be judging others when there were 2.0 million cases of domestic violence in 2011/2012 in the UK?

His comment also reminded me of an article I had recently come across, citing that “More than a third of all women worldwide – 35.6% – will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime”. I've just been back to look at the article, and:

“Even in high-income countries, 23.2% of women will suffer physical and/or sexual violence from a partner in their lives”

It's the use of the world 'even' that I'd like to talk about here.

There seems to be a belief that people living in countries which are lucky enough to have developed infrastructure, who might happen to be further ahead with the Millennium Development Goals than other countries, who have access to water and high living standards, are inherently less prejudiced than those living in other parts of the world.

This belief is entirely misplaced. The fact you may have grown up with access to energy and water and education and food does not have any relation to the way in which you treat your fellow human beings. In fact, I have faced far more compassion and open-minded attitudes from strangers in global south countries than in the UK, where I grew up, or in Germany, where I live now.

The sexism and racism I've faced in my professional life has overwhelmingly come from people who grew up in, or consider themselves to be from, “developed” countries. Let's be clear here; the word “developed” refers only to living standards- high, or low. Access to water, a roof over your head, enough food to feed your family; that's it. It means that by some lucky fall of the dice, some of us have enjoyed higher living standards than others; nothing more, nothing less. Shockingly, there isn't a magical point at which an economy grows to a certain point and then racist and sexist people suddenly see the light.

Prejudices like racism and sexism transcend borders, cultures and societies. Sure, there are some countries or cultures who have worse track records in these than others; but to assume that wealth and living standard are the deciding factors in this is to ignore a whole range of other considerations. Assuming that we, in what we like to call “developed countries” are immune to such offences is naïve, offensive and plain wrong.


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