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White men’s privilege in emerging economies isn’t measured. It should be

Economists need to focus on the role white privilege plays in modern, growing economies. Shutterstock

On the same day I interviewed a white Dutch man living in Gurugram, just south of New Delhi, I spoke with a black Congolese migrant. Their contradictory experiences speak eloquently about the impact of skin colour on shaping migrants’ everyday experiences.

The Dutch gentleman, who is in his 30s, told me he increased his business team’s success rate in closing business deals just by showing up.

If you bring a Western guy … then they really feel important, so if I come in there I almost feel like a God. […] Honestly, every meeting where I have been, they give me business afterwards … I always see that the business is increasing when I’ve been there. Not that because I’m so good, [but] because I’m a Western guy.

The Congolese gentleman had been living in India for about a decade. He had recently lost his job and been evicted from his apartment. He suspected that in both cases his dark skin was to blame. Africans have a very hard time finding housing in South Delhi’s more middle-class colonies because people don’t like to rent to Africans. Africans also report being vulnerable to sudden evictions and being harassed for rent money even when it’s not due.

The Dutch man’s white privilege makes him more effective in the workplace. It also imbues him with special status in the gated residential community where he lives with his family. He rents rather than owning an apartment, but was invited to sit in on meetings with homeowners – a privilege not extended to Indian tenants.

The Dutch and Congolese men’s experiences are echoed in many emerging market economies. My research focuses on migration and globalisation, primarily on what I call “frontier migration”: the movement of people, capital, technology and ideas from a more “developed” economy to one that’s less “developed”. Through my work in India and earlier research in South Africa, I have concluded that migrant experience is over determined by perceived socio-economic class and what the migrant looks like - eye shape, height, hair texture and race.

Traditional economists cannot quantify or measure the effect of white male privilege in facilitating business dealings or obtaining employment in emerging market economies. This is because white privilege cannot be easily measured. Ironically, part of whiteness’ privilege derives from its position as the “norm” against which all else can be made visible for dissection. Meanwhile, it remains almost invisible itself.

Social and economic capital

In both South Africa and particularly in India, white men from the west benefit from positive stereotypes. People believe they are wealthy, are a boon to the economy and are “legal” migrants.

In India, one factor stands out far above the rest. Almost every single white man from a “developed” country whom I interviewed candidly explained the positive effect his white skin had on his migration experience. Many felt a mixture of discomfort and surprise at the power they’d gained by moving from a white-majority society to a white-minority society. At home they looked like everybody else. In a country like India, their whiteness set them apart.

It also gave them an exponential social and economic advantage. They report being ushered into nightclubs and concerts and, according to one 20-something American man living in Bangalore, receive a lot of positive attention on dating apps like Tinder.

Whiteness is a selling point for many employers. I interviewed a British man in his 60s who was the headmaster at an elite South Indian private school. During a speech to parents, he explained that he was happy to relocate to India because one of his great-grandparents was actually Indian. His employers were unhappy that he’d mentioned this Indian heritage. Part of the school’s cachet and competitive advantage derived from having a “genuine white guy” in charge.

White women and darker-skinned migrants have very different migration experiences from their white male counterparts.

In India, particularly in the north, dark skin is associated with poverty and being low-caste. British colonialism exacerbated this prejudice. Indians discriminate against others based on their degree of “darkness”. Darker Indians also struggle with this, but dark-skinned African foreigners are the most severely hit by this prejudice.

This has been grimly illustrated by a spate of mob attacks on Africans in north India.

“Fairness” is associated with being high-caste. This is often correlated with a higher socio-economic status, so lighter skinned foreigners also benefit from this positive bias. A white South African man told me he feels “very welcome” in India because most Indians perceive him as a white Westerner, not an African.

Measuring white privilege

There is no simple way to quantify the impact of white privilege in the global economy. But economists should join sociologists and post colonial scholars in trying to do so. Countries like India and China represent greater and greater shares of global GDP. As they grow, the role of white privilege in their economies will likely increase as well.

I have argued in my research that it’s important to speak about the global ethnic economy. Whether one is studying the role of entrepreneurs in increasing growth or trying to understand labour market dynamics, factors like race, ethnicity, gender and so on should be accounted for. This will deepen our understanding of daily global transactions.

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