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A relic of the past

RIP First World Problems

By Skye Davey
Deputy Communications Director

When "First World Problems"* peaked back in 2011 I didn’t think twice about joining in. But after discovering author Teju Cole’s take on the phrase, I started to think very differently.

The following is a nostalgic reflection on the ever-problematic "First World Problems".

 

What’s the problem?

Thanks to popular media representations of the so-called “third world” - and the relative rarity of empowering or complex portrayals - billions of diverse peoples are regularly and wrongfully stereotyped as hopeless, helpless and utterly miserable. And while few of it’s users (me included) intended to, "First World Problems" played a role in that.

 

Check out Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole’s brilliant series of tweets on First World Problems here.

 

"First World Problems" is condescending.

The concept is based on the assumption that “third world” peoples live exclusively in misery, faced only with“third world” problems like natural disasters, poverty, starvation, war and death.

But the truth is that people all over the world - from Nigeria to North Melbourne - complain when their phones freeze, when they’re sitting in traffic or when they’ve left their laptop charger in the next room. Because they’re human, not saintly.

Okay, sure - low-income countries face some pretty tough issues, but "First World Problems" perpetuates the myth that these countries are literal hell-holes. How would you like it if other people imagined your home as their go-to symbol of suffering?

 

 

"First World Problems" ignores the fact that wealthy countries face a laundry list of challenges too.

In Australia, homelessness is growing rapidly, we’re facing a national crisis of Indigenous imprisonment, an epidemic of domestic violence, and have a government that thinks it’s a-ok to keep innocent people indefinitely imprisoned on Nauru and Manus island.

That matters because the kind of thinking behind "First World Problems" - that “we” have it all worked out, and “they” can’t keep their heads above water - undermines the struggles of oppressed and disadvantaged groups.

"First World Problems" is lazy.

We used it to show others we weren’t wrapped up in our own petty problems - and to make fun of people who were - but it was never insightful or constructive. We could have been donating, volunteering, or starting important conversations about our privilege. Instead we made condescending jokes.

On it’s own, "First World Problems" is a tiny slice of our language, but it’s also part of a much larger culture of harmful attitudes and beliefs about the “third world”.

While it’s important to maintain perspective on our anxieties, the thinking behind First World Problems obscures an obvious and important truth: we’re far more similar than we might think.

Teju Cole says it well:

 

*Did you know? The terms “first world” and “third world” are not only inaccurate, but ridiculously outdated. The terms hark back to the Cold War when the world was divided into communist and capitalist camps. They imply a world hierarchy which places low-income countries squarely at the bottom.