“That’s what the hell he gets. Good for him!” My mother had uttered those words in her typical matter-of-fact tone one morning as she watched the news. “He” was Michael Fay, an 18-year-old from Ohio who had confessed to vandalizing cars in Singapore, and was subsequently sentence to six lashes from a rattan cane. I was in sixth grade and all I could imagine was how horrible the pain would be. My mother was unmoved at the thought, remarking, “He earned that.”
I thought about my mother’s words a few days ago while watching video of 21-year-old Otto Warmbier, another man from Ohio who last week was convicted of subversion for stealing a propaganda banner in North Korea, and sentenced to 15 years hard labor. Just as in Fay’s case, I was shocked by the severity of the punishment. I’ve tried to imagine spending a decade and a half performing what the North Korean state deems hard labor and I can’t. But I’m not 11 anymore, and now, my mother’s callous reaction to Micahel Fay’s sentence is my reaction to another young white man who went to an Asian country and violated their laws, and learned that the shield his cis white male identity provides here in America is not teflon abroad.
As shocked as I am by the sentence handed down to Warmbier, I am even more shocked that a grown man, an American citizen, would not only voluntarily enter North Korea but also commit what’s been described a “college-style prank.” That kind of reckless gall is an unfortunate side effect of being socialized first as a white boy, and then as a white man in this country. Every economic, academic, legal and social system in this country has for more than three centuries functioned with the implicit purpose of ensuring that white men are the primary benefactors of all privilege. The kind of arrogance bred by that kind of conditioning is pathogenic, causing its host to develop a subconscious yet no less obnoxious perception that the rules do not apply to him, or at least that their application is negotiable.
Headline after headline has highlighted that Otto Warmbier is a student. His Linkedin profile states that he is majoring Economics with a minor in Global Sustainability and is a Managing Director of an “alternative investment fund.” A man reared in this country who studies the globe as a part of his higher education curriculum must have been at least passingly aware of the notoriously strained relationship between the United States and North Korea. Surely he had read the stories of Jeffrey Fowle and Matthew Miller, other white American men arrested in North Korea for “petty crimes” who were subsequently sentenced to hard labor.
Yeah, I’m willing to bet my last dollar that he was aware of the political climate in that country, but privilege is a hell of a drug. The high of privilege told him that North Korea’s history of making examples out of American citizens who dare challenge their rigid legal system in any way was no match for his alabaster American privilege. When you can watch a white man who entered a theatre and killed a dozen people come out unscathed, you start to believe you’re invincible. When you see a white man taken to Burger King in a bulletproof vest after he killed nine people in a church, you learn that the world will always protect you.
Coming from a country filled with citizens who lambaste black victims of state sanctioned violence by telling us that if we obey the law, we wouldn’t have to face the consequences, Warmbier should’ve listened. If he had obeyed North Korea’s laws, he would be home now. In fact, if he had heeded the US Department of State’s strong advisement against travel to North Korea, he would be home right now. And if Eric Garner is to be blamed for his own death for selling loose cigarettes or if Sandra Bland is dead because she failed to signal when changing lanes, then Otto Warmbier is now facing a decade and a half of hard labor because he lacked both good judgment and respect for the national autonomy of a country which has made its hatred for and vendetta against America unequivocally clear.
And while I don’t blame his parents for pressuring the State Department to negotiate his release, I wonder where they were when their son was planning a trip to the DPRK. Didn’t they impress upon him the hostile climate that awaited him? Didn’t they rear him to respect law and order? Did they not teach him the importance of obeying authority?
What a mind-blowing moment it must be to realize after 21 years of being pedestaled by the world simply because your DNA coding produced the favorable phenotype that such favor is not absolute. What a bummer to realize that even the State Department with all its influence and power cannot assure your pardon. What a wake-up call it is to realize that your tears are met with indifference.
As I’ve said, living 15 years performing manual labor in North Korea is unimaginable, but so is going to a place I know I’m unwelcome and violating their laws. I’m a black woman though. The hopeless fear Warmbier is now experiencing is my daily reality living in a country where white men like him are willfully oblivious to my suffering even as they are complicit in maintaining the power structures which ensure their supremacy at my expense. He is now an outsider at the mercy of a government unfazed by his cries for help. I get it.