1.12.2009

thoughts on privilege

I've been thinking a lot about privilege. My own privilege.

When Allan and I moved from New York City to the Toronto area, it meant having much less discretionary income. That took some time to adjust to, and that adjustment grew more difficult as my work situation changed.

When we first moved, I was temporarily writing full-time. Then that abruptly ended. I found work, and had a stable situation for a while, then the law firm went out of business. Then came a roller coaster of bad employment and unemployment, until I started working steadily again, but on a reduced income.

So it's been an adjustment, and not always pleasant.

Allan and I both lived on very little money when we were in our early 20s, but like most people, as my income grew, I easily adjusted to greater comfort. And it's hard to go back.

Now we're much more budget conscious than either of us would like to be. The material things we'd like to spend money on - books and music - we don't, for the most part. Still, we've traveled a little, and I made the big, expensive switch to locally produced, organically raised meat. We can go out to dinner once a week, and we can go out for a beer with friends without having to rearrange our lives. It's tight, but we're enjoying our lives.

I have a co-worker who I've become good friends with. She and her husband earn, I think, roughly the same as Allan and I do - but they have four kids.

Mom Of Four is an excellent mother who tries very hard to give her kids everything they need. She's knowledgeable about nutrition, her kids skate and play hockey, one takes dance lessons, and it sounds like they have a lot of creative family fun time. But making ends meet is a constant struggle.

It was talking about food with MOF that I felt my privilege most keenly. Her choices are so constrained. For example, I eat more salad when we buy bags of pre-washed lettuce, and we buy the organic kind as well. MOF can't rationalize the price difference, when one bag won't even cover the whole family. My privilege reduces my risk of ingesting harmful pesticides, and it reduces my food-prep time, making it easier for me to eat healthier.

We buy gluten-free, organic breakfast cereal, but it costs easily twice as much as the cereal MOF buys, and one box doesn't go a long way with a family of six. Even if we gave up on organic, simply choosing whole grain versus heavily processed breakfast food means a huge difference.

As the price of fuel and food soared this summer, I often thought about my friend MOF and her family. We felt the pinch, but we were still able to eat healthfully. Were they?

There's a story in today's Globe and Mail about the return of processed "comfort food" in difficult economic times. As people put less expensive dinners on the table, they are filling their families with empty calories, sacrificing long-term health for short-term satiety. Do they have a choice? One woman says,
I can go to the grocery store and if I buy four litres of milk it's costing me almost $7, but if I go buy two-litre bottles of Coca Cola, it's going to cost me two and change. That's a problem that I have, and I think it's a problem for society in general.

Yes, it is a problem.

Even in a land of plenty - which, globally speaking, Canada certainly is - nutritious meals are a privilege, one that increasing numbers of people cannot afford. A child who gets poor nutrition starts life with a disadvantage. So in addition to whatever other disadvantages a low-income family may have, their children are less equipped to thrive and succeed.

When I feel discomfort with my own privilege, I do what I do for everything: I rationalize it. In another Globe and Mail story, about Loblaws charging five cents for plastic bags, a woman says,
I spend $300 a week at Loblaws... Now they want me to pay for the bags, too? And what are you supposed to do when your dog poops if you don't have any bags?

If you're spending $300 a week at Loblaws, chances are you can afford the extra nickel per bag. Or instead, you could choose to understand that the point isn't to make you pay the extra nickel, but to persuade you to use fewer disposable, landfill-choking plastic bags. In other words, that it's not all about you.

(I had the same question about dog poop, but we solved it.)

But in general, I can - we all can - read that quote, then look at our stash of reuseable bags and feel good about ourselves. But are the self-congratulations deserved?

Most of us live our lives with a combination of selfishness and altruism, balancing our needs for comfort and enjoyment with our desire - our need, I think - to give to others and to improve the world around us.

I remember a meeting of the Haven Coalition, the abortion-access network I used to help run in New York City. Haven "hosts" provided dinner, a bed, transportation, and some tender friendship, to women coming to New York for second-trimester abortions. It was very labour-intensive work, and for some hosts, it was also a financial burden. For others, the money was negligible - an extra mouth to feed one night a month, a taxi ride, a spare bedroom - no big deal.

At this meeting, we were discussing the differences between hosts and our guests, which was often a chasm of education, social status, class and race. A chasm of privilege. One well-heeled host said, "If you have privilege, use it. Use it for others. Use it for good. Recognize it, and use it for good."

Sometimes when we're caught up in our own struggles, we don't recognize our own privilege. Sometimes it's as close as the person at the next desk.

26 comments:

Adam said...

I try and always realize who is around me when I voice the "concerns" of my life. One never really truly knows what another individual's situation is and I find myself regularly reminding myself that I can't assume the people around me wouldn't love to have my "problems" or "concerns" over their own. It is good for me to remember that many of my life "problems" are those others would metaphorically kill to have instead of their own, because, simply put, I realize I have it pretty good. One doesn't need it to be Thanksgiving day to be thankful that their own major concerns are a joke compared to those of others. And be thankful to the Universe.

L-girl said...

I try and always realize who is around me when I voice the "concerns" of my life.

That's very wise and sensitive.

When I worked as a nanny and housekeeper, my employer would complain about her financial "problems" to me. She owned a house worth well over $1 million (20 years ago), sent her son to private school, etc. And she complained about her financial woes to me.

I hope I am never guilty of a similar insensitivity!

JakeNCC said...

I saw a cousin and his wife at christmas and they were complaining that their recent inheritance of $2 million was not enough to retire. They bitched and moaned because they had expected more. They thought they would be able to move closer to the city but now they can't because of their "small" inheritance. I asked how much of that money were they going to contribute to helping others and the wife thought I was crazy for even asking the question.

Adam said...

That is exactly what I mean. I worked as a waiter while also doing real estate. I also had a very loving and supportive partner and an incredibly comfortable home with, essentially, all the bells and whistles, to come home to...but I was working my butt off and had to realize more than once how grateful I was to have the opportunities, support and love that several of my waiter co-workers didn't and probably wouldn't. Put *everything* in a proper perspective when I began to moan.

L-girl said...

. I asked how much of that money were they going to contribute to helping others and the wife thought I was crazy for even asking the question.

That's unusual, I think. Most people expect to as a matter of course. But then, anyone who would complain about receiving $2 million because you happen to be related to someone (money for nothing), who knows.

I was heartened to read that this Christmas, gifts of donations in the recipient's name were way up. Hard times help people realize that other people have it even harder.

L-girl said...

Put *everything* in a proper perspective when I began to moan.

Right. I didn't even mention that we rent a nice little house just for the two (four) of us. The house and the backyard is so wonderful to us. I realize all the time that plenty of people have so much less. And I mean people right around me, not globally.

L-girl said...

I guess I didn't spell this out in the post, but I feel strongly that it's our responsibility to use our privilege to work for a world where everyone can afford decent food for their children - where it's not a privilege, it's a right.

Chrystal Ocean said...

Thoughtful post. Thank you from myself and others I know whose incomes fall far below the most impoverished of poverty lines.

Regarding this: "One well-heeled host said, 'If you have privilege, use it. Use it for others. Use it for good. Recognize it, and use it for good'."

The strongest recommendation I can give is that the well-heeled learn how to lead from behind. That is, provide support, when asked, to those whose lives have been marginalized by income, class, racism, etc. Be prepared to be, collectively, the background against which the marginalized may lead in imagining, designing and implementing their own solutions.

This is about empowerment. As hard as it is for people with money to understand, those of us without money need the respect of society and to have our voices heard far more than we need our physical needs met. Loss of self-esteem is a HUGE issue.

L-girl said...

The strongest recommendation I can give is that the well-heeled learn how to lead from behind. That is, provide support, when asked, to those whose lives have been marginalized by income, class, racism, etc. Be prepared to be, collectively, the background against which the marginalized may lead in imagining, designing and implementing their own solutions.

This is about empowerment. As hard as it is for people with money to understand, those of us without money need the respect of society and to have our voices heard far more than we need our physical needs met. Loss of self-esteem is a HUGE issue.


Thanks Chrystal, that's good food for thought, too.

I think sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't. People have to be able to lead where they can, and work for the world they want, regardless of where they come from. I wouldn't want any of the great activists I've known to be inhibited from action because they were born to relative privilege.

Because really, there is not one group called "people with money". Our backgrounds and privilege are all relative to each other. Compared to my friend MOF I am privileged... compared to my sister, I'm poor.

Surely movements have to be led by the people most affected, but all must be welcome, IMO.

liliannattel said...

In some countries, basic food stuffs, what is considered basic for adequate nutrition (like milk) is subsidized. Wouldn't that make more sense than a corp tax cut?

JakeNCC said...

This christmas I convinced my immediate famity to give money to CanadaHelps instead of giving each other presents. CanadaHelps provides for food banks all over Ontario. A couple of years ago I saw a story about a butcher shop in Toronto that was giving away a small package of chicken to anyone who wanted it. Thousands of people showed up and waited in line for hours in the cold for what amounted to about 10# of chicken. How sad is that. Ever since then I've given as much as I can to food banks. This really touches me to the core, that in this magnificent wealthy country that people go hungry or don't have enough to eat. How can that be?

Vancouver Isle Doug said...

Very interesting, and enlightening, post. Since our move to Canada we have been rethinking how we do things, what we buy etc. A lot of that comes from our new location, where people seem, for the most part, to be 'aware' of things outside their own world and take steps to help improve. We had been talking about adding on to our house at some point. This weekend I spoke to my partner and asked how we are like little spoiled brats, complaining that our 3 bathrooms are too small! A lot of people would give an arm for ONE bathroom! So we have scrapped the plans to add on and will instead enjoy what we are fortunate to have. In time I am sure we will use our privilege to help others - we just have to connect with the right people/groups in our new country.

impudent strumpet said...

Another variable to add to the karmameter.

L-girl said...

In some countries, basic food stuffs, what is considered basic for adequate nutrition (like milk) is subsidized. Wouldn't that make more sense than a corp tax cut?

...

This really touches me to the core, that in this magnificent wealthy country that people go hungry or don't have enough to eat. How can that be?

Yes yes yes. It's criminal. We can do so much better.

L-girl said...

Vancouver Isle Doug, thanks for sharing that. Very cool. Canadians are often surprised when I say that this country is less materialistic, less obsessed with acquisition and consumption, than the US. I guess it seems impossible, because plenty of Canadians seem very materialistic! But you've hit on the difference: people are more aware of others, of community. I've seen that since the day we arrived.

Re using privilege/connecting with people, if you make it a priority, it will happen when the time is right. We were here for 2 years before I got involved with the war resisters campaign, but now it's such a huge part of my life - and has drawn me into the fabric of Canada in such a rich way. I hope you find something that you find just as satisfying.

L-girl said...

Another variable to add to the karmameter.

Have you registered karmameter.ca? Or maybe karmameter.blogspot.com.

James said...

I can go to the grocery store and if I buy four litres of milk it's costing me almost $7, but if I go buy two-litre bottles of Coca Cola, it's going to cost me two and change.

Here's a big part of why this is the case. This refers to the US situation, but I'm pretty sure it's not that different in Canada (except we use actual sugar in our Coca Cola).

Ann said...

"Sometimes when we're caught up in our own struggles, we don't recognize our own privilege. Sometimes it's as close as the person at the next desk."

This is oh so true. We get so caught up in our own daily lives and "complications" that we tend to forget what others may be going through. We may feel that our own lives are difficult and rough, but there are others that are worse off.

Nigel Patel said...

I've been thinking about my own privilege last week.
Though my income has been nearly halved since the auto industry died my life would be considered wonderfully fantastic in some places in the world.
I know the responsible part of me should be feeling the guilt but I am aware of the wonderful fantasticness and all I can do is dig my existence immensely.

impudent strumpet said...

The tricky part is even if others are worse off, that doesn't negate the fact that our difficulties are difficult (insofar as they are difficult.) If your diamond shoes are giving you blisters, you still do have blisters. And being thankful that you have shoes at all isn't going to make the blisters go away - might just make you feel guilty on top of the blisters.

L-girl said...

Though my income has been nearly halved since the auto industry died my life would be considered wonderfully fantastic in some places in the world.

But presumably you don't pay the same housing costs or food costs that people in those places pay. Your rent and expenses were probably geared towards your old salary, so your income being cut in half is a very real issue, not just whining over a lack of luxuries.

The tricky part is even if others are worse off, that doesn't negate the fact that our difficulties are difficult (insofar as they are difficult.)

That's what I always tell people. Our problems are our problems. We have a right to be upset, frustrated, angry, whatever. I don't feel guilt over that (or anything else), but remembering my privilege helps me keep it in perspective.

L-girl said...

Here's a big part of why this is the case.

James, good link, thanks.

Nigel Patel said...

That is true, I had to give up having my own apartment, and the utillities costs that go with it, and scale down to where now I just rent a bedroom and have only two months ago gone back to having a car after going the Summer without one.
I'm actually a lot happier now than then and have gotten a little bit suspicious of me having too much "stuff".

L-girl said...

I'm actually a lot happier now than then and have gotten a little bit suspicious of me having too much "stuff".

I admire people who live with less stuff. I wish I could go further than I have. I could care less about shoes or clothes, but when it comes to music and books, I collect. And I love home stuff.

I wish I didn't... but I sure do.

Cornelia said...

One well-heeled host said, "If you have privilege, use it. Use it for others. Use it for good. Recognize it, and use it for good."

Great point! I really like this because it's about ressources we can not only put to good use for ourselves but also for helping other people and achieving something for human rights and working for improvements etc. on a political level.

Cornelia said...

One well-heeled host said, "If you have privilege, use it. Use it for others. Use it for good. Recognize it, and use it for good."

Great point, I really like this. Because it's about ressources we can put to good use not only for ourselves, but also for helping other people, working for improvements and achieving something for human rights on a political level, sort of. I hope I haven't posted this twice, there was some technical issue for me!