Femke becomes Funke: Guilt and privilege – the true privilege is being able to say no

Guilt and privilege seem to go hand in hand, at least if you have any moral fibre in your body. Feeling guilty about something you cannot do anything about however is an utterly unproductive emotion.


This time I have postponed telling my Nigerian friends about the job offer. Understandably, they have made fun of the crazy deals on the table before. Like the one predicting for me a glamorous career in show business – made in a rat infested apartment in Somolu by a managing director who did not know the first thing about me (apart from the colour of my skin).

My friends have shaken their heads at the promising propositions that turned out to be hot air, amused at the oyinbo woman’s willingness to believe just about anything. But this opportunity that came to me three weeks ago is different. This job in Lagos actually fits my profile, seems challenging and, most importantly, real. I should be thrilled.

Getting job offers in a country where most are out of work is a humbling experience. I do realise most proposals are based on a very limited aspect of my identity, features for which I cannot take any credit and have never made any effort: I am a white European woman.

In Lagos, every opportunity I get reminds me of the bright, ambitious, educated Nigerian young people I know who are desperately looking for a job. Especially the one on Facebook who writes so heartbreakingly honest about what being unemployed does to your self-esteem. How at some point you start to believe that it is you. How at some point you start doubting yourself and your abilities. I always read his Facebook updates, but I never respond. I simply do not know what to say.

In this column I have written before about what it feels like to be judged and dismissed for being white. I explained I do not mind much – as long as it is done openly. The truth is: I feel much more uncomfortable with the undeserved advantages I get for being white. Those make me feel guilty. That is why I shy away from telling my friends about this job offer. I am genuinely excited about it, but a little nagging voice in my head tells me I do not have a right to be.

So what should I do? Refuse in solidarity with the Nigerian unemployed masses, hire a corrugated shag in swampy Makoko and see if my used to nothing European stomach can handle typhoid and cholera? Should I stay in The Netherlands to avoid Nigeria’s warm welcome? My Nigerian friend working at a Dutch university laughed when I brought this up. He has no time for such scruples. ‘I work in your country, no? So you go and work in mine. It is the 21st century!’

Guilt and privilege seem to go hand in hand, at least if you have any moral fibre in your body. Feeling guilty about something you cannot do anything about however is an utterly unproductive emotion. (It also makes you an easy target for emotional blackmail, but that is a subject for another column).

What privilege should go hand in hand with – apart from being bloody grateful that this is the lucky hand of cards you were dealt with –  is the obligation to act conscientiously. Privilege comes with the ethic responsibility not to embark on all opportunities offered just because you can.

That is why I did not jump the shadeless queue at Iyana-Ipaja bus stop, even when the BRT bus driver ‘Madam, madam, come now!’ told me to. (That and the reaction I imagined of the two Yoruba women waiting in front of me, pearls of sweat on their foreheads, when I would cut the line: their teeth sucking would have expressed more disdain than words ever could.)

Earlier this week I got another job offer. Wouldn’t I want to be the head mistress of a private primary school in Lagos? Of course the school still needs to be set up and all, but I could live on the premises and start it from there. The person asking does not even know if I like children. If I enjoy pinching toddlers when no one is looking. If I have kid’s liver for breakfast and their kidneys in tomato sauce for lunch. Let alone whether I have a pedagogical background or any knowledge of running a primary school.

The privilege lies only partly in the opportunities thrown at you.

The true privilege is being able to say no.

P.S. Yes, I know I am being vague about the interesting job offer. I know you want to know about it. Are you kidding? I have learnt my lesson! I will not say a word until I am a thousand percent sure it is for real.

Talk to Femke on Twitter @femkevanzeijl

Previous entries of Femke Becomes Funke:

The word I hate most in any language

Idiot oyinbo woman’

As good as your gadget

My moin moin madness

White sexual commodity

‘I became angry the Lagosian way: skin deep’

Beer in the morning? I would not dream of refusing

Golden opportunity

A terrifying dream

Editor’s note: This is a repeat from last week’s edition.

Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.


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