I was grabbing coffee this morning at work and a couple of older women joked, “I need coffee! I can’t imagine what it’s like in Third World countries where they don’t have any!”
I cringe every time I hear those words. It would be wonderful if we all made a concerted effort to stop using the phrase “Third World” so casually. It’s outdated, very racist, and very classist. It should have been thrown out with “colored.”
In case you didn’t know, the Third World is a concept that was conceived during the Cold War to distinguish the spaces outside of American and Soviet influence. The “developed” Western world was considered the “First World,” and Communist countries were considered the “Second World.” All other states, which were either colonies, former colonies, or those who refused to ally with either side, were assigned the ambiguous and demeaning status of belonging to a “Third World”–and thus insignificant in international matters of politics, commerce, or human rights.
Unsurprisingly, these countries are largely inhabited by African, Arab, South Asian, Latin American, and indigenous peoples, and now they even include Slavic people from the former Soviet Bloc. The image we receive of these places has become a cliché: African children with distended bellies, Latinos crammed into sheds, flooded Indonesian markets, blasted apart mosques. We hear about ISIS and wars in the Congo, rape, child soldiers, drugs and piracy.
However, this is not the full picture. There are very wealthy people in the “First World” and very poor people in the “Third World”; it’s not mutually exclusive. Compare Detroit with Dubai and the blanket assumptions no longer apply. And yet, people still use the term “Third World” as a shorthand for the poor and hungry parts of the world, the “unmodernized” populace and “uncivilized” masses, as if modernization and civilization somehow come without poverty and cruelty.
We’re told these places need Western aid, and yet Western colonialism and global economics are what have made them how they are. It’s the same logic that was used to support colonies, slavery, genocide, and war. Many African armed conflicts are over precious resources that are used to manufacture electronics the world over, diamonds are sold to fuel civil war, and acts of terror in the Middle East are largely in response to Western occupation and dependence.
My protest of the phrase and concept of the “Third World” is not a matter of white guilt or liberal shaming. It comes from a desire for us to realize that racism and prejudice isn’t always as explicit or violent as it is on the news, say in Baltimore. It’s institutional, it’s easy, and it can be as simple as using a shorthand like “Third World” to imply that entire chunks of the world will never be as privileged as you.
All I’m asking is that we think before we speak.