Through My Spectacles: What are we doing with our privilege?

The island table became a jigsaw puzzle, with the mashed potatoes fitting into the stuffing fitting into the turkey. Every inch of granite was covered by a dish, with more spilling over into the ovens. There were only eight of us and nowhere near the amount of people needed to finish all that food.

We had spent the better half of the day seasoning meat and molding pies, and while we cooked and laughed into the hot kitchen air, we knew there was too much food. We continued anyways.

Growing up, I never thought of food as a privilege. All that mattered was I could eat when I was hungry, or when I was full, or when I was bored. I remember sneaking a box of Gushers out of the pantry and hiding behind the family room couch where I ate all six pouches in one sitting because I liked the taste and wanted more. A part of me knew that was wrong and I was being greedy––which is why I hid––but I let myself indulge because I knew I could. There would always be more Gushers to buy, and always more food to eat.

I didn’t eat much this Thanksgiving. Maybe I finally learned how to listen to my stomach when it was clearly full or maybe it was because it all seemed a little ridiculous to me. Not the spending time with family and being grateful, although there is an argument to be made that people don’t do enough of that outside of the holidays. It was the food, the money spent, the blatant model of excess that is America.

When forking the turkey into my mouth, my thoughts couldn’t help but turn to the week prior when I had volunteered at the Salvation Army. How the people walked up to the food line with their clothes dripping off of them and their hands trembling, asking me what meat was inside the soggy burritos. We had to turn them away when they came back asking for seconds because we had to feed as many people as possible.

I don’t know what it’s like to be denied food, or denied anything outrightly for that matter. I’ve never had to ask for seconds, I’ve always just taken them. Looking at the food sectioned off in separate chafing dishes with flies hovering above, I thought of how hungry they must be to come back for more because I wasn’t sure I would have been able to eat one plate.

There’s a certain amount of awareness that comes with growing up––or at least there should be. It causes you to re-examine your position in the world and your life in relation to others’. At the end of it, you realize just how truly privileged you are and how so much of that is unearned. You gain the privilege that comes with being middle class, or white, or male, not because you did anything to contribute to that, but because you were lucky to be born into a body that society views as superior and more valuable.  

So often people confuse the action of acknowledging your privilege with forcing you to feel guilty about it. You shouldn’t feel guilty about being born straight, or cisgender, or an American citizen. You have as much control over that as someone who was born gay, or in the wrong body, or in another country where people’s rights are more limited. However, you should feel bad if you don’t use that privilege to help those who are less fortunate.

Sadly, today individualism seems to win over working towards benefiting the community. We care about what impacts our individual lives and how we function in society. So often people brush off issues that have no impact on them because they can go through life just as easily. I frequently question whether I would care about racial and gender equality if I wasn’t black and a woman. If I would care about LGBTQ rights if I didn’t understand what it’s like to be denied opportunities because of something I have no control over. I like to think I would because everyone should care about egalitarianism, but I don’t know.

It’s hard worrying about what’s happening to the person next to you when you’re just trying to get through life yourself, because life is hard. I admit that, and I’m guilty of getting caught up in myself. But maybe if the person next to you cared about your rights and your opportunities and your value, just a little, life would be a bit easier.

We lack a sense of community, in the larger sense of the word. So much of our lives are spent walling ourselves in small circles where people, culture, and class are familiar, and we can’t look outside of them. We separate ourselves into positions, creating situations where it is us against them. Blinding us to what makes us similar, preoccupied with what we think we’ll lose when the “other side” gains something.

Except, you don’t lose when the couple down the hall can marry regardless of their sexuality; when women get paid as much as a men for doing the same job, at the same quality; when minorities gain acceptance into universities, not because of affirmative action but because they earned their high grades; or when you take half of your Thanksgiving dinner down to the Rescue Mission so those who are hungry can eat and know what they’re eating, because you didn’t need that much food in the first place.

Having too much is possible, and although we don’t always like to acknowledge it, a vast majority of Americans have too much, and that is contributing to our lack of empathy. Because when we have always had, we are less inclined to understand the need for social welfare programs, improving the public education system (especially in urban areas), why minority America should gain the rights and power that white America has always had.  

So, the next time you say you’re poor as you study in the library of your private institution, or walk into a room where most of the people are the same color as you, take that as a moment to reflect on your privilege. Then use that reflection as encouragement for you to help someone else gain privilege. That way, we can all have.