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You Gon’ Learn Today: On the Revocation of White Privilege in North Korea

“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.

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52 comments… add one
  • Prisc ,

    Hey I’m Singaporean, and I’ve gotta tell you. That little smug Michael Fay got a much harsher sentence than all the other boys because him and his father decided it was okay to disrespect our judge because they were “Americans”. I would’ve slapped his little smug face.

    Somehow, I have a feeling this would be similar.

  • Kinfolk Kollective avatar LaSha ,

    Glad you brought up the US.

  • anonymoose ,

    You very clearly do enjoy seeing humans suffer if you support a horrific autocrating government forcing someone into hard labor for trying to snag a poster from his hotel.

  • Cmurph ,

    Do you want feedback or not? If you only want to hear from people who agree with you, I suggest you not publish your thoughts publicly.

  • anonymoose ,

    Holy victim blaming, batman.

    But sure, let’s basically excuse the actions of a horrific, despotic regime which routinely commits egregious human rights violations.

  • First, It is hard for me to actually take the crimes he is accused of at face value since the government claiming what he did is North Korea. Second it is almost certain any confession he made was under duress. Third the idea of rule of law in North Korea is absurd. Anything can be made criminal there, it is a country with forced labor camps and one of the worst human rights records in the world which has no respect for any notion of international law.

    While yes he took a large risk in going to North Korea, it was in a sense a brave thing to do. This is a country that has such limited contact with the outside world, that has close to zero exposure to the outside world. Foreigners who travel there are both in the sense of Steinbeck’s travel to the USSR right after world war two, understanding and seeing a place in the world totally closed off. In addition the limited contact they make with locals goes a long way for them as well.

    Maybe you can argue he shouldn’t have traveled to North Korea, maybe we can make an argument about how his white privilege clouded his judgement as to how much trouble he could get in. But then again, the two girls a few years back who where excited in Singapore for small amounts of drug possessions, even though they most likely where set up, deserved their punishment too by this logic. They too took risks.

    I am sorry, but please do not defend one of the worst, cruelest and inhumane regimes. His punishment was an absurd abuse of his basic human rights, a violation of any sense of respect for International Law, and is indefensible. No one deserves this type of injustice.

    While we should also point out all the cases that you brought attention to in your article, which where also in violation of common decency and fundamental rights, injustice here and injustice over there are both wrong and should be condemned.

  • that guy ,

    and here we have muphry’s law in action

  • Ambi ,

    do you white men on hear complaining hear yourselves….oh wait no you don’t you don’t live in a world where you HAVE to Listen or think about someone else point of view AND you refuse to admit whenever you are wrong LOL! these comments just PROVE the point of the writer and article.

    While their justice is harsher than we think it should be it’s THEIRS and you, me and everyone should respect that IF you choose to go over their period. I didn’t hear that many (some) but few white men making excuses when someone black was doing a “petty crime” or 0 crime at all and got KILLED. At least this man will have a chance at life.

    Hell if he serves all 15 years he’ll still be well under 40. Come back and be able to have a family etc. All those various folks of color that “looked at someone wrong, had a strong opinion like you are expressing now, or just was walking home from getting a snack are DEAD. There is 0 chance of life for them. So to you all…kick rocks and grow some real balls and stop thinking you are right 24/7 and deserve whatever you THINK you deserve

  • This is absolutely fabulous! I did not read any of the comments; I simply don’t care to read a reaction. I think that what LaSha writes is true and as much as I hate to see a human suffer, especially over something so small, I get it! Keep writing! I love it. Bravo!

  • Kinfolk Kollective avatar LaSha ,

    Nah, it takes a common sense stance. You don’t play with fire.

  • Kinfolk Kollective avatar LaSha ,

    I see the world through my lense. You don’t. And I don’t give a fuck.

  • Kinfolk Kollective avatar LaSha ,

    Look at you all confused and shit, believing I give an iota of a fuck about your opinion.

  • Dan Mathis ,

    You do realize this article takes a pro-authoritarian and autocratic stance.

  • Dan Mathis ,

    To primarily view this horrible abuse of power by an autocratic government, one that terrorizes and starves its citizens, through the lens of identity politics is not only ridiculous, it is completely heartless. While there are a lot of times where blackness/whiteness/womaness/queerness etc plays a large role in circumstance, and the marginalized should be given a voice, this is not in any way shape or form one of those times. Have a heart and find your common humanity, there are other things to see in the world besides race-based identity politics.

  • Oliver ,

    “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.”

    Let’s put you in a North Korean work camp and see whether or not you prefer your garden variety existence to the horrors this idiot is now experiencing. No doubt this guy is deserving this punishment but you’re also a special kind of dumb to make this comparison. Congrats, you both sound stupid now.

  • AntiFascistAmerica ,

    Yes there is you boot licking enemy of liberty.

  • tommyp72 ,

    This is why this white man is no longer silent. I may be pissing off a lot of folks along the way but I’ll never be silent again.

  • tommyp72 ,

    Powerfully written. Well done!

  • Kinfolk Kollective avatar LaSha ,

    We have so much in common. I read your comment and thought the same.

  • I’d be more sympathetic to this viewpoint if he’d committed the offense in a country with a functional judicial system — one that didn’t hand down arbitrary sentences in kangaroo courts. A country like Singapore, for all of its authoritarianism. This kid was stupid, arrogant and privileged, but none of that makes me OK with him getting 15 years of grueling hard labor for attempting to grab a poster from a hotel just because of his nationality. The good news is that the DPRK uses these crazy sentences as bargaining chips, and will probably cash this chip in before the guy actually serves those 15 years.

  • David Harris ,

    There is nothing wrong with taking joy in criminals getting punished.

  • Zach ,

    When I heard this story, as a white male, I thought, “What a dumbass.” Yet when I read this post, I thought the same thing.

  • David Harris ,

    I completely agree with the fact that he got what he deserved. As a white cis male who lives in the US I have little* problem with the way police treat blacks. What needs to be fixed is the way police and the justice system let whites do anything they want with no more than a slap on the wrist.

    * The main exception being New York’s stop and frisk laws. Those are wrong and should be gotten rid of immediately.

  • MAC67 ,

    I think you are missing the point. The tone of the article is not “ha ha, white guy got 15 years of hard labor”. The author dove into the psyche of being privileged…something white men just don’t get. They move through the WORLD without a sense of consequence. They can sexually harass women; they can deny a loan to a black businessman; they can promote their undeserving buddy; they can riot when they win the Superbowl; they can fucking run for POTUS even though they are CLEARLY unqualified, and EVERYONE else just looks on because we don’t control the system, THEY do.

  • keary ,

    you asked for my thoughts. Let that remain foremost in your mind. The author undermines the legitimacy of their own conclusion about the Eric Garner and Sandra Bland by 1) making those situations out to be the same as this one and the vandalism case in Singapore and 2) concluding that the punishments in the two latter situation are reasonable to the extent that they are the customary. Punishment and should have been expected. The author undermines thr notion that what happened tp Eric Garner and Sandra Bland was unjust.

    Fortunately the to situations arr not really comparable. What happened to Eric Garner is not the prescribed punishment for illegally selling cigarrettes, and what happened to Sandra Bland, not even being asked tp step out of her car, NOT even being asked to put her cigarrette out, is not the prescribed punishment for failing to signal.

    The points the author was trying to make were ligitimate but the article was sloppy and missed it’s mark. While no one is perfect and everyone has a right to express our opinion, I think its important for those in position of intellectual influance to be careful of undermining the very goal that theu mean tp serve with sloppy, emotional, irrational pr illogical. Language.

  • kazei5 ,

    Very well said.

  • Anthony ,

    My problem is that not EVERYTHING is a race issue. How can you take a tragedy like Sandy Hook or the Aurora theater shooting and claim that it creates a culture of racial supremacy among whites?

    “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.” Just out right racially biased information.

    Did you look up any crimes committed by African Americans? I wonder if any of them come out unscathed?

  • MAC67 ,

    White men have stood by in silence for 300 years, determining who gets access, who is denied, who has to fight for equality, who will not. They have been the gate keepers to resources, to fairness, to justice, to employment, to the pursuit of happiness. They continue to stand by in silence and continue to hold the keys.

  • Strange that anyone would ever expect the law of another country to treat you in the same manner as the law in your native homeland.

  • Anthony ,

    Common journalist… there’s a difference between being supportive and being racist. Just because someone is not marching down the street with a BLM poster, does not make them a racist.

  • John Osborn ,

    Obviously you missed the author’s point. And that is she, being black knows what it is to scrupulously obey laws! In her case it often means death! White privilege is insidious. It blinds us whites to the point that oppression of others of color, sexual preference, sex must be pointed out to us in order to change minds. Try to understand before resorting to divisive language.

  • Kinfolk Kollective avatar LaSha ,

    The white people who do care aren’t walking around waiting for any excuse to be racist. So…

  • Anthony ,

    I agree! YES there are racial problems in America, but was this kid the cause of injustice? Yes he was stupid, but not because he was white and raised to feel that the world revolves around him. Do some black kids commit crimes because they were raised to think they can get away with whatever they want, while white people have to obey the law? (I don’t believe that, but that is exactly the racial biased connection you made) When you start treating all white people like they contribute to the racial problem, you will lose support from the white people that do care.

  • “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.”

    Pretty much nailed it here – you act like a thief or a thug, you get what’s coming to you!

  • I understand the idea behind the article. White Privilege does give a person a sense of power. I would not visit North Korea for obvious reasons. Their laws are harsh and unforgiving. Well written as always. I wrote about White Privilege recently and I echo some of your points, but I took a slightly different perspective.

  • I will be shedding No tears for this lowlife!! I love it! LOL!!!

  • Leon Bynoe ,

    Head of nail, meet hammer.


  • rarubee ,

    I’m sorry that the power structure in our country does not benefit all citizens equally. It took me time to learn that “privilege” is not the same as “guilt”, and that my privilege puts me in a position of power – and that I can use that power to make others aware of social injustice, hate speech, institutionalized racism. . .

    The narrative needs to stay focused on how we can equalize the playing field for POC, and I really don’t want to distract from that. I had a hard time reading this. And not because it called a white man out on his privilege, but because there was almost an enjoyment of his punishment. It doesn’t matter the color of a person – I would feel nauseous at the hate and resentment in this article regardless of who wrote it.

    I hope you are able to see real change in your lifetime. I am sincerely sorry you are not treated as the equal you are. I am sorry for the pain and anger it has caused you. Truly. Stories like this only make me want to help more, any way I can. We need to heal this ish.

  • Excellent article, For anyone who never understood or cared to understand what is meant when smart people tell Americans that white priviillege and systemic racism ultimately has dier consequences for
    Those the directly and indirectly bennifitted from it for the past three hundred plus years, THIS IS AN EXAMPLE OF WHAT THEY WERE TALKING ABOUT. GO IN PEACE.

  • This is an excellent article. A lot of times people claim they can’t relate because they don’t have a point of comparison. But the “Coming from a country filled with citizens who lambaste black victims of state sanctioned violence by telling us that if we obey the law…” paragraph explains it perfectly. If he had only obeyed the law he would be home now. But you know what? He’s still alive.

  • Kinfolk Kollective avatar LaSha ,


  • the punishment was severe yes but it sends a signal to other Americans when you visit another country you must respect their laws or suffer the consequences , here in the USA for his crime he would have given another scholarship, and there lies the problem, “spare the rod and spoil the child” it worked for me and it should work for others, sorry, he deserve the punishment

  • EqualityBeforeDivisiveness ,

    Not saying what he did was smart but

    A) turning this into a racial issue
    B) turning this into bashing someone of a certain race
    C) excusing north koreas actions because of the race of the victim

    That’s fucking vile, and you’re part of the racism problems in america.

  • Yes. I felt the same with with the kid in Singapore. Good article.

  • Hilbert ,

    Well put! You made my day!!!!!

  • Good! I loved it! I will now stalk this blog – and your Facebook page.

  • Great post.

  • Fantastic, shared on FB, loving your blog.

  • Nikki Gee ,

    Thank you for giving my feelings and sentiments a VOICE.

  • Yes. Yes. Yes and Yes.

    You said it all. Thank you????.

  • Almaz ,

    Yep said this exact same thing when that young man in Singapore got in trouble many years ago.

    I have no sorrow or sympathy. That’s what he gets.

  • Yassssssssss!!!!

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