Last year, I wrote about the trend of saying “first world problems,” and how it’s offensive to some people. The argument, while it’s almost too politically correct, is a good one. Here is a string of tweets (compiled by Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic) by novelist Teju Cole articulating his issue with the phrase.
I don’t like this expression “First World problems.” It is false and it is condescending. Yes, Nigerians struggle with floods or infant mortality. But these same Nigerians also deal with mundane and seemingly luxurious hassles. Connectivity issues on your BlackBerry, cost of car repair, how to sync your iPad, what brand of noodles to buy: Third World problems. All the silly stuff of life doesn’t disappear just because you’re black and live in a poorer country. People in the richer nations need a more robust sense of the lives being lived in the darker nations. Here’s a First World problem: the inability to see that others are as fully complex and as keen on technology and pleasure as you are.
One event that illustrated the gap between the Africa of conjecture and the real Africa was the BlackBerry outage of a few weeks ago. Who would have thought Research In Motion’s technical issues would cause so much annoyance and inconvenience in a place like Lagos? But of course it did, because people don’t wake up with “poor African” pasted on their foreheads. They live as citizens of the modern world. None of this is to deny the existence of social stratification and elite structures here. There are lifestyles of the rich and famous, sure. But the interesting thing about modern technology is how socially mobile it is–quite literally. Everyone in Lagos has a phone.
And while Cole has a lot of good points here, a new ad by waterislife.com features impoverished Haitians reading some choice #FirstWorldProblems tweets. While they might have to endure the silly stuff too, the ad provides a stark contrast to Cole’s complaints and makes anyone using the phrase look like an ass for entirely different reasons.