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First World Problems and White Whines

A while ago, somebody on LiveJournal linked to White Whines, one of several sites which collects “first-world problems.” There are certainly some spoiled, privileged, and sometimes humorous posts collected here … but the whole concept bugged me.

Partly, I hate playing Competitive Problems. Yes, it’s important to keep perspective, and to recognize that there are others out there with far more serious problems than mine … but that doesn’t make my problems unimportant. Jay Lake talked about it a bit on his LiveJournal a few months back:

Friend: “Man, I feel lousy. I have a cold.”
Jay: “Man, that sucks. I hope you feel better soon.”
Friend: (embarrassed) “Oh, wait. You have cancer. Never mind.”

Because cancer is the trump card of Competitive Problems. (Okay, now I’m tempted to write the rules of this game. Diabetes gives me a +3 to complain about health problems, but I also lose one point per published book for any writing-related complaints…)

Where was I? Oh, right. What bothers me more than the “Ha ha, your problems aren’t real problems,” attitude (and I will admit I don’t have a ton of sympathy for some of the problems posted), is the whole concept of lableing these things “white people’s problems” and “first world problems.” As it turns out, “third world” isn’t actually shorthand for “Everyone is poor and starving and diseased and waiting for the west to swoop in and save them.” Here, have a few images from third world countries like India, South Africa, Brazil, and Tanzania.

I could write a long-winded post trying to unpack the various problematic assumptions here, but I decided to go a different route instead. Feel free to substitute “first world” and “third world” for white and PoC in my comments below.

Four more modified White Whine images behind the cut…

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.

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( 86 comments — Leave a comment )
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la_marquise_de_
Jul. 18th, 2011 01:44 pm (UTC)
Well, here's something that winds me up. The lazy use of 'First World' throws everything on Europe. You guys over that side of the Atlantic are the New World. And while I know that many people forget this -- and the whole world counting thing is deeply, deeply flawed and patronising and I dislike it hugely -- every once in a while I get British about it and find myself muttering 'Own your own issues, don't just blame us over here' at USians on the internets.
As to the scale of problems thing... I don't know. I tend to feel that most of mine are pretty damn minor and it's up to me to deal, not to expect the world to help me. Perspective is all, and there are far many more important things that need to be addressed ahead of me being irritated at sloppy label usage (frinstance). I don't want to be a distraction or a derailment.
jimhines
Jul. 18th, 2011 01:49 pm (UTC)
Interesting. I think there's a usage disconnect here, because I'm seeing "first world" as inclusive of the United States in the way it's being used. The research I did before posting this suggested that "first world" vs. "third world" was 20th century terminology that came about in the 1950s or 1960s or so, and I've not seen it used in relation to the "New World" as the United States.

But that could also be a U.S. perspective on the terminology...
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Sorry if this is too much off topic, Jim. - mrissa - Jul. 18th, 2011 03:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
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elizaeffect
Jul. 18th, 2011 01:48 pm (UTC)
On the other hand, I love using #firstworldproblems as a self-mocking shorthand for the recognition that I need to get over myself. :P
jimhines
Jul. 18th, 2011 01:50 pm (UTC)
Oh, I definitely agree that there's a need for perspective, and I sometimes have to remind myself that I'm blowing my problems all out of proportion. I just think we need a different and better label for that...
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cathshaffer
Jul. 18th, 2011 01:48 pm (UTC)
Interesting observation. I tend to agree that White Whine is taking an unfair stance in a lot of ways. I don't complain about my serious problems on the internet because it's inappropriate. The internet was made for breakfast reports and trivial annoyances. People should get over it. Sometimes it's humorous to tag "first world problem" onto a particular complaint, but...well, you have a good point.
jimhines
Jul. 18th, 2011 02:01 pm (UTC)
Wait, why is it inappropriate to complain about serious problems online? I don't complain about things that would involve other people -- I mean, I'm not about to vent about a fight with my wife, for example -- but I'd have no problem at all venting over the diabetes, which strikes me as a more serious problem than the hairball the cats left for me the other day.
(no subject) - cathshaffer - Jul. 18th, 2011 02:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
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jimhines
Jul. 18th, 2011 01:56 pm (UTC)
Do you mean the competitive problems thing, that disability X is worse than disability Y, so folks with disability Y should just suck it up? Or am I misreading?
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tamaranth
Jul. 18th, 2011 01:53 pm (UTC)
There's something very mean-spirited about some of the commentary on that site.
tamaranth
Jul. 18th, 2011 01:58 pm (UTC)
Also, the blog is (in many cases, if not all) exaggerating the gravity / sincerity of what are basically ephemeral ventings by people who've bought in to the whole 'what's happening RIGHT NOW' aspect of social networking.
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nathreee
Jul. 18th, 2011 01:54 pm (UTC)
I was thinking about something loosely related this morning. A friend of mine if pregnant and is constantly telling everyone to take that into account when inviting her over for dinner or when taking her out somewhere. And I thought to myself: she should whine so much. And that is a nasty thought, because being pregnant is hard work and it would be nice if people cut you some slack when you're pregnant.

So the problem is not that she makes too big a point out of being pregnant. Her feelings and problems are real to her and there is no denying them. But her insistance that others should change their plans to accomodate her, that is the thing that gets to me.

And I think that applies in this case. Having a cold or being stuck in traffic are problems that merit sympathy. But the attitude that those problems are so big that they merit a lot of attention, that's what sparked people to start these websites, I'm sure.

The naming is a shame. As you say, saying that all white people are whiners and POC never act spoiled, that's just not right.

When I see people say things like that on the internet, I almost immediately assume that it's a spoiled brat posting it. Someone young who has been handed the world on a platter. Skin colour or nationality have little to di with that concept.
cathshaffer
Jul. 18th, 2011 02:06 pm (UTC)
You are probably not wrong about your pregnant friend shouldn't whine so much. Fortunately, U.S. Federal law includes a self-absorption social exemption for ladies pregnant for the first time.
saya22
Jul. 18th, 2011 01:56 pm (UTC)
I'd call them The Privileged Whine. Because even here in my THIRD WORLD country we do get those kind of whines from the rich, privileged people (i.e. bribe-eating politicians) while working middle class people like my family struggled in the wake of recession and political corruption. So we're more or less the same, really.

(btw, The Snow Queen's Shadow just hit our store last week. Congratulations! It's already sold quite well)
jimhines
Jul. 18th, 2011 01:58 pm (UTC)
Privileged Whines strikes me as a much more accurate label.

And yay! Very glad to hear it!
(no subject) - saya22 - Jul. 18th, 2011 02:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
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charmingbillie
Jul. 18th, 2011 02:08 pm (UTC)
I really really dislike the 'first world problems' meme. One, because it's yet another way of judging people--generally strangers. And second, because I almost always hear women using it about themselves so it also strikes me as a particularly insidious form of gendered self-judgement.

People's problems are their problems. And not discussing or dealing with a problem because it's a 'privileged' problem or because someone else doesn't approve of it is, well, a problem. And really venting is not even the same thing as saying this is a problem. It's really just saying--this annoyed me for a moment and I wanted to share it.
zornhau
Jul. 18th, 2011 02:18 pm (UTC)
Said what I was going to say.

Also, there's an implication that you can address either your problems OR those of the rest of the world.

I can moan about my underpowered PC AND donate to Oxfam on the same day.
(no subject) - joycemocha - Jul. 18th, 2011 02:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
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silveraspen
Jul. 18th, 2011 02:17 pm (UTC)
I like saya22's suggestion of "privileged whines."

I'd also thought that use of "first world" versus "third world" was itself something of a problematic issue these days? "Developing nations" is the term that I've seen taking precedence in an economic context.
foxtrot_sierra
Jul. 18th, 2011 02:24 pm (UTC)
I think a better name for the site is "Cry Me a Fucking River."
(no subject) - silveraspen - Jul. 18th, 2011 02:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
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jimhines
Jul. 18th, 2011 05:28 pm (UTC)
::Headdesk::
evewithanapple
Jul. 18th, 2011 02:52 pm (UTC)
There's a very "clean your plate, children are starving in China" attitude about it. Which is a problematic idea in and of itself- what about people with eating disorders? Should they be shamed about their problems? How about allergies? A lot goes on in peoples' lives that they don't include in a status update. For instance, a few days ago I was blogging about not being able to go downstairs because my parents were throwing a party- which seems like a "oh get over it" problem until you realize that I have social anxiety, and the prospect of having to talk with their guests actually terrified me. I mean, I'm sure some of the people featured on that site are just whiners, but I'm equally sure that singling peoples' minor complaints out to point and laugh isn't really doing much to dismantle their race/gender/class/etc privilege.
jhetley
Jul. 18th, 2011 03:21 pm (UTC)
"A lot goes on in peoples' lives that they don't include in a status update."

If I am dealing with a *serious* problem, you won't see it online . . .
(no subject) - evewithanapple - Jul. 18th, 2011 03:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jennygadget - Jul. 19th, 2011 06:35 am (UTC) - Expand
blpurdom
Jul. 18th, 2011 03:18 pm (UTC)
I've only recently seen people I've had friended for a long time start to qualify a post as a "first-world problem", to show that they realize that there are people in the world with more dire issues than not getting the type of tile they wanted to be installed in their renovated mudroom. (Thank goodness I haven't seen this termed a "white problem".) I think that this kind of qualifier on a post is probably supposed to prompt people to think, "Oh, good, he's got some perspective and realizes that others have it a lot worse than he does." But that qualifier makes me think one thing and one thing only:

If you really think non-first world problems are more important than your first-world problem, why not post about those issues instead of your mudroom? If you're going to post about your damn mudroom tiles, own that and don't try to simultaneously appear to be concerned about the rest of the world. (Honestly, there are a lot of people in THIS country who would be thrilled to have the mudroom tile problem instead of the my-house-was-flattened-by-a-tornado problem.) If you care so much about the rest of the world do something about it instead of slapping a qualifier on a post about something that generally only privileged people are in a position to complain about. People constantly acknowledging that they are privileged just come off as bragging, not full of perspective.

And don't even get me started on the idea of only white people being in positions of privilege...
jimhines
Jul. 18th, 2011 05:27 pm (UTC)
I think the intention behind #firstworldproblems is generally good when used in the ways you describe in that first paragraph, for exactly the reasons you mention. But ... yeah.

Edited at 2011-07-18 05:27 pm (UTC)
(no subject) - theguindo - Jul. 18th, 2011 07:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - blpurdom - Jul. 19th, 2011 02:29 am (UTC) - Expand
huit
Jul. 18th, 2011 03:21 pm (UTC)
And I bet the site creators are whining about every visitor that has AdBlock installed because they aren't making as much moolah as they should. But hey, maybe if they start book and novelty t-shirt sales that will ease the pain just a bit.

THE INTERNET IS FOR SERIOUS BUSINESS ONLY.
mrissa
Jul. 18th, 2011 03:31 pm (UTC)
The genuine white whine joke I know dates back many years, and of course is to be told orally: "Did you hear about the new Wisconsin white whine?" "Why can't IIIIIII go spearfishiiiiing?" Because that genuinely was something that was attached to a non-white culture. Otherwise I agree with you that the term is incredibly problematic and in many cases just dumb.
jimhines
Jul. 18th, 2011 03:56 pm (UTC)
Okay, in that instance, I am entertained and would agree that the term fits :-)
snapes_angel
Jul. 18th, 2011 03:47 pm (UTC)
I don't see any of those things as applying exclusively to Caucasian people. The attitude always bemuses me, since I'd think of it more as a "people" problem, rather than anything specific to a race, nationality, or caste. And all nonwhite people, poor? I laugh. I scoff. That's like saying all white people are rich, and those types of arguments always carry inherent fallacies. I wouldn't be able to explain the fallacy, but I know it's there. It's like saying all chocolate is white, thereby denouncing the existence of dark chocolate. I know, inferior example, but life is made up of different flavors and consistencies anyway, and to deny this, is to deny reality.
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