I’m Privileged. Now What?

It started out as just another Tuesday, but two things happened today that made me stop and re-examine my perspectives and my potential hypocrisy. (I like to think that what makes us good people is not that we are flawless, but that we recognize and try to ameliorate our flaws.)

The first occurred in the morning before school. A small group of students and I were hanging out in the classroom, and somehow our iPhones came into the conversation.

“Ugh,” I said grimacing. “I am so sick of this phone.” (My iPhone 5 was stolen in May and I have since been using my old iPhone 4.) “It’s slow, it’s clunky, and it’s always shutting down the programs… what’s that called?”

“Crashing,” one of my students offered with that adults-are-so-old-and-clueless smile.

“Yeah, crashing. It’s so annoying.”

Half a moment later I caught myself and added, “First world problems.”

Some students nodded their heads in agreement, but others seemed not to recognize the phrase. I explained what “first world problems” are.

“You know, like how our problems are not really problems compared to other people around the world who don’t have homes or clean water or food? Or they have bombs landing in their backyard?” The kids nodded. “Oh, my phone is sooo slow!” I mocked myself. “First world problems.”

We left it at that. What much more was there to say? Later we discussed current events and had a serious conversation about the situation in Ferguson, MO, to which my students contributed astute and thoughtful perspectives. It’s clear they can grasp the reality of the world as well as, and sometimes better than, adults (although they are blessed with a much simpler and more ethically-bound view of it). But translating their outrage into meaningful action can be more difficult than it seems.

The second moment happened on my commute home while I was browsing Facebook. (If I had a dollar for every minute I spent…) I came across a favorite page of mine, Humans of New York, the author of which currently appears to be traveling the world, sharing poignant peeks into the lives of people from much different walks of life than most of us here. The post I caught today was from a bartender in Uganda who told the short memoir of witnessing his family massacred by a group of invading rebels. His story included watching his brother get shot, breaking free only to be locked out by his neighbors, and returning home to find his dismembered father. The horror is self-apparent. I scrolled down briefly and saw several random comments. More than one person bemoaned how they could be so concerned about their daily problems when they are truly so very minor compared to stories such as these. And, of course, I agreed.

But then I stopped, and I really thought about it. I must have moments like several times a week, if not several times a day — times when I remind myself that I am so privileged it hurts. I am a fairly attractive, fully-abled Caucasian born to a middle-class family with an average-paying job that affords me the general respect of society. I live in a nice apartment in a progressive area which holds fairly liberal values. Ok, so I’m female, but considering the recent roars of feminism I’m feeling like that’s a pretty insignificant handicap.

I am privileged, in almost every way. (Which is not to say that I have not struggled, suffered, and worked incredibly hard. But it is to say that I did not have insurmountable odds against which to fight.) I recognize this fact; and then I am stuck. I cannot un-privilege myself, unless, I suppose, I donated all of my personal belongings and dedicated my life to charity in a Mother Theresa sort of way. But then, I’d still be white. I’d still be physically able. I’d still have a loving family to fall back upon.

So where do I go from here? I feel as though I am useless if I am not trying to help fix the problem. But, by definition, I am part of the problem. Awareness is one thing; action is quite another. The best I can come up with is to speak out about others’ lack of privilege, to become an advocate for those who lack the rights that I enjoy. But what does that look like? If I’m not down on the front lines, how “active” can I truly be?

As a teacher, I have the fortunate position to educate some of our children. I know that I can pass on a greater knowledge of humanity and raise their awareness of the suffering of others. But the next question is, what can they do? The tools I can offer them are the same tools that I conclude are ineffective for myself. It feels like a cop-out to simply pass the problem onto the next generation.

But perhaps the next generation will have some better answers.

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One thought on “I’m Privileged. Now What?

  1. Your words ring so very true for me as well. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in stark poverty with a mom who always offered a kind word or deed to others less fortunate. Perhaps it’s because I choose to witness the despair and challenges that others face. Or, perhaps it’s because I do try to see the human behind the suffering and struggle when others choose to turn a blind eye.

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