Sure, Americans use the hashtag to make petty complaints and seem socially aware at the same time, but the term “First World” is way beyond its expiration date. Here’s why.
My fellow Americans, I have a modest proposal and I hope you hear me out.
Let’s all stop using the hashtag #firstworldproblems.
I know, I know. It’s a fashionable way to make petty complaints while also acknowledging that people are enduring far more urgent and potentially life-threatening problems in other parts of the world. How else are you supposed to be self-indulgent and come off as socially aware at the same time? It’s hard, I know. But I really wish everyone would just knock it off.
For starters, “First World” is a term way beyond its expiration date. I could give you a lengthy description of its history, but it’s a phrase rooted in the notion that the economic and governance models of western nations are better than anywhere else in the world. More than that, this ideology has encouraged predatory and paternalistic practices that have left many poor countries even further behind and exploited. It’s implicitly (if not literally) hierarchical in its connotation. One of the most neutral terms I’ve come across to describe the places people think of as the “Third World” is “LACAAP” (Latin American, the Carribbean, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific).
Second, the phrase “First World” suggests that there’s some sort of universal experience for people living in either LACAAP or western nations. But, in fact, there are very, very wealthy people living in the developing world. And there are very, very poor people living in the United States in deplorable conditions. Country of residence (or birth) does not always determine the quality of life for people on this planet, and it doesn’t serve any poor people to pretend it does.
Here in America, the rate of people killed in Chicago outnumber troops killed in Afghanistan. In Pembroke, Illinois, people live without running water and heating gas, and burn their own garbage in lieu of a proper system to dispose of waste. And in the southwest, a half-million people live in shanty towns called “colonias.” There are, in fact, people in this country living in conditions that are very similar to those of the “developing world” (a phrase with its own pejorative connotations). This especially includes the millions of Americans we throw away in prisons.
So what is it that we think we “first world” people are dealing with that others just can’t imagine? A cursory search on Twitter provides a few easy examples of #firstworldproblems:
I broke the power button on my iPhone, now I can’t take screenshots. #firstworldproblems — First World Problems (@firstworldme) April 27, 2014
Power is flickering on and off in the South Valley. Please don’t do this to me. I have nothing else to do but watch TV. #firstworldproblems — Angela Brauer (@AngelaBrauer) April 27, 2014
#FirstWorldProblems: Stuck behind slow shoppers in shopping malls — Christopher Yuan 袁幼軒 (@christopheryuan) April 26, 2014
iPhones, television, and shopping malls. Got it.
Except, of course, this is largely untrue. Modern technology does indeed exist in other parts of the world, just as the digital divide still persists in the United States. As novelist Teju Cole notes, these kinds of stereotypes ignore all the many ordinary ways that people living in western and non-western countries are so much more alike than they are different.
Now I am not arguing that the United States is a third world country (though there are others making that claim). But I am reminding my fellow citizens that with America’s current state of income inequality and wealth disparity, our shrinking middle class, and the lowest infant mortality rates in the industrialized world, we’d do well to reflect on just how similar we are to the poverty-stricken countries we leave out of #firstworldproblems.
Here’s a suggestion: Try “#privilegedpeopleproblems,” a hashtag with no geographic limitations or specifications. Acknowledging privilege means recognizing the way that power, inequality, and unfair advantage allows some people to have problems that extend beyond basic survival.
#Privilegedpeopleproblems reminds us to think about why we have more as a function of why others have less. And it doesn’t let us so easily forget that we have our own undernourished, marginalized, and impoverished neighbors right here in the “first world.”
So, #privilegedpeopleproblems instead. It’s a start. What do you say?
Khadijah Costley White is a faculty member in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Find her on Twitter here.