What’s going on in my brain right now:
I spent a good two years forgetting about America and painting a brighter picture of it. People are…better off in America. They go to school, they go to college, they have good jobs, they have stable families, they take care of each other. I heard these same things echoed by my Ugandan friends, and it started to make sense. I think I started to believe it, too. That, compounded with the fact that I had spent the first 23 years of my life in very lucky circumstances, in progressive middle-class settings like academies, universities, AmeriCorps, Peace Corps. . I grew in an extraordinarily stable, loving, supportive family. I didn't confront anything particularly difficult, outside of school work, and my own emotional peculiarities. God, I was lucky. I’m still lucky. We all create our own universes, and so mine in my adolescence, was not centered around the rest of the world, but the world that I saw and touched and interacted with every day. I didn't see myself as lucky. I saw myself as Ilse. So, of course I remembered America as a blessed place. I had been passed smoothly and comfortably through a great school system. Most of my friends were college graduates, and no matter their difficulty with finding jobs after graduation, they were already better off them many other Americans our age.
So, maybe I didn't forget about America. I never knew America.
Not all of America is lucky. When I met a fellow American in Uganda, we had an instant bond, regardless of other dividing factors like race or beliefs. We were American. Bold, loud, progressive, adventurous. I caught myself seeing all Americans as my compadres. Living so far away from home bonded us to each other, simply because we reminded each other of our families and homes in Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Colorado, California. We all knew what Starbucks was. How much traffic sucks. How silly our politics are. How great micro-brews are.
How I never noticed, how I wasn't always hyper-aware of the divisions and inequalities is completely beyond me. My brain was still developing, right? It was just lucky again, to not be aware of this. Many Americans, no matter how young, are constantly aware of racism, classism, inequality, prejudice, and bigotry because it comes to their front door. It stares them down on the street, it taps them on the shoulder, it pulls them over while all other cars continue. It keeps them from jobs, from opportunities, from security, from stability. I know of these things now from observation and from reading. I don’t know these things from personal experience, and I probably never will. I look Scandinavian. I am innocuous in a crowd. I have few stereotypes going up against me, besides the one that has been built off of centuries of genocide and racism…I’m white. I am part of a race known for its bigotry, rape, killing, racism, oppression, colonization…and above all, for being the luckiest people on earth.
That stereotype is not misplaced, and it’s not ‘counter racism.’ I will never experience racism against me. It will never approach that which people of color deal with daily. The racism we have in America is an established institution. It’s as settled as the church. It has seeped and steeped into all parts of our lives. It’s air around us.
The standard of living I looked back upon fondly from Uganda, was a standard of living experienced by other middle-class, often white young people. Yes, most of these people go to college. They are expected to. It’s part of the culture. Many of these people are also implicitly expected to specialize further and go to grad school and then be able to live comfortably for their lives. Meanwhile, thousands of young people of color come from households where it’s not even an expectation to go to or finish high school. Where getting your child to school every day is not realistic between the demands and challenges of the household and family. Where rides in safe cars don’t materialize right at 7:30 am and 3:30 pm to shuttle you between school and home. Where there is no safe home to return to.
There is no great difference in the school-going culture I witnessed in my village in Uganda and the school-going culture experienced by low income families in America. I remember thinking about how hard it was to get students to come to school reliably and attend my after-school programs in Uganda. Attendance was so low and so variable to many factors. Transport was always an issue. I thought that Americans never had issues with this…kids attended programs, and had rides, and supportive parents. I now run a teen group after-school, and if I thought it would be as easy as congregating a group of soccer players from the suburbs, I now know better. If anything, low income families have much more to go up against in America, because they often don’t have the same security of family land and farming that Ugandans do, and also because Ugandans don’t have an entirely different and elitist and removed and prejudiced class of people to go up against.
We can’t help what we are. As Eckhart Tolle once said,
"The most common ego identifications have to do with possessions, the work you do, social status and recognition, knowledge and education, physical appearance, special abilities, relationships, personal and family history, belief systems, and often political, nationalistic, racial, religious, and other collective identifications. None of these is you."
Right. None of these IS you. To forget that, is a huge mistake. You can’t get swept up in waves of hatred for the group or race you belong to, because groups are made of individuals who are different and special. But, and now I’m speaking to myself; you can’t be complacent. It’s so easy to be complacent and take for granted your 4 cozy years at an ivy league college, your relatively easy entry into the workforce, your ease with and interest in writing and reading, your decision to get a masters in English literature, your access to a life devoid of the regular often-inescapable problems experienced by most other humans, your ability to buy food and coffee and wine, your consistently functioning car, your stable family life, your healthy body, your healthy mind…
I recently read the Princeton commencement speech given by a former professor turned federal chairman Ben Bernanke and it was great because it wasn’t an “Oh- the places you’ll go!” sort of speech, but rather a valuable look at the sheer luck of the graduates. He gives 10 commandments/bits of advice for the graduates, and while some of them are humorous, I found two in particular to be incredibly valuable.
3. The concept of success leads me to consider so-called meritocracies and their implications. We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair. Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic, meritocracies may be fairer and more efficient than some alternatives. But fair in an absolute sense? Think about it. A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate--these are the folks who reap the largest rewards. The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair, is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world, and to share their luck with others. As the Gospel of Luke says (and I am sure my rabbi will forgive me for quoting the New Testament in a good cause): "From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded" (Luke 12:48, New Revised Standard Version Bible). Kind of grading on the curve, you might say.
4. Who is worthy of admiration? The admonition from Luke--which is shared by most ethical and philosophical traditions, by the way--helps with this question as well. Those most worthy of admiration are those who have made the best use of their advantages or, alternatively, coped most courageously with their adversities. I think most of us would agree that people who have, say, little formal schooling but labor honestly and diligently to help feed, clothe, and educate their families are deserving of greater respect--and help, if necessary--than many people who are superficially more successful. They're more fun to have a beer with, too. That's all that I know about sociology.
In all honesty, no college grad anywhere wants to here this when they have spent 4 years busting their asses writing philosophy papers and reading British Literature. They feel on top of the world and quite possibly proud that they managed to graduate with relatively good grades considering all the binge drinking they did on Thursday nights. I’m assuming that the large crowd of robed (and some hungover) Princeton grads possibly zoned out during this speech. I had no idea what my commencement speaker was on about during my graduation.
But- what a remarkable message to pass on. He did cover some of the more typical graduate points earlier in the speech when he spoke about the uncertainty of the future and the difficulty of life as a 22 year old entering the world—but then this! That these graduates, along with many others around the country and world, are goddamn stupid lucky. That in their bright, young, fresh luck, they must take on the responsibility of helping others, of looking beyond their narrow lives to the rest of the world. That they must share their bright spark of luck with the rest of the world.
And then—my favorite part, that while it is indeed admirable to graduate with honors from an ivy league university—a venerable old institution-- that it is far more admirable to live amongst adversity and carve out a life from hard work, perseverance, and sheer hope. With no degrees, connections, and wealth to help out along the way. !
This isn’t to belittle the great academic undertakings and successes that many Americans have. It is to understand that not all Americans are fortunate enough, or can realistically be expected to have these same enriching and privileged experiences. That perhaps your great skill with writing is more a testament to your background—the encouragement given by parents, the enrichment classes, the leisure time to read, the ability to go to college—and that a single mom moving to a new neighborhood so that her young son can attend a better public school is above and beyond a greater accomplishment.
In my teen group, we recently did a training on resume-building. I brought my resume as an example, resplendent with honors, extracurricular activities, volunteering, altogether too many “corps” experiences. Itzel, a 16 year old girl, has only been in America for a year. She spent most of her life living with her grandmother in Mexico. We went around the room, highlighting what we could each put on our resumes. Some of the teens had impressive sports experience, a few had volunteered, several were in clubs or student government at school. Itzel had nothing on her resume, besides the teen group that she was currently participating in. She wants to apply to Cub Foods soon and is worried her resume won’t be good enough. She tells me that she loves our group because she gets the chance to use her English, that at her high school no one talks to her. The other teens in our group barely talk to her, but it’s still a great opportunity for her. Itzel wants to be a nurse, and during a recent career- finder exercise, found that she would be well-suited to be a nurse-midwife. Being a midwife pays an average salary of 80,000 dollars a year. It also requires post graduate education. Itzel wanted to know what that meant, and we told her that it meant additional schooling after graduating from college. Itzel would make an exceptional nurse. She loves children; yesterday we volunteered to make dinner and play with younger kids, and she was wonderful with the small kids. She is smart, responsible, dependable, and calming. No one deserves a brighter, better future than her. I’m so afraid that her heavily accented English, her lack of ‘extracurricular/clubs/sports’ (our peculiar obsession in America…how we can ask even more of our kids beyond just showing up to class) will keep her from even being considered at colleges and jobs. What I can do? I plan to connect her with a volunteering/internship opportunity at a hospital if I can, and also meet up with her this summer to play soccer so that she can try out next fall at her high school. She likes soccer.
What we can do as lucky young people, is help other young people who have to jump through about 10,000 more hoops, cut down 6,00 more barriers, and answer 2,000 more questions to be able to do the things that we see as ‘routine’ and ‘expected’ such as get into college and get a job worthy of us.
Great examples of this? My parents, for one. What they do with the majority of their time is exactly this. They empower people from all walks of life to take care of themselves and their families. They connect people to resources. The most admirable thing is that they look neither down nor up at people, they simply look at them.
The people I work with are really excellent; most of them are people of color which enables them to work even better with the participants in our agency. They connect families with resources, offer counseling, help youth see college as a possibility instead of a mirage, provide kids with role models and mentors. With their life experience, perseverance, and perspective, I often feel like a lame duck in comparison. Like many in the states, their road to success has been all up-hill, and rather than sitting where they are now and just admiring the view, they have already begun to share their knowledge, education, and love with their communities. They are front-line workers and embody my vision of social workers and community builders.
Like the Tolle quote from before, it doesn't and shouldn't matter what we do or what we do well or what we look like or what we know or what we believe. That’s not us as individuals. If being a wall street banker or politician is what you do, it doesn't mean you are petty or smarmy or elitist. It also doesn't signify intelligence, or betterness. If we raise our children to be bankers, writers, professors, lawyers, doctors, we have to go the extra mile and also raise them to see these careers and lives as privileged, and lucky. We need them to grow as critical thinkers who view a college education as a gift and a conscious choice, not as a baseline expectation or a norm. That people who don’t have the choice or the chance to do or experience what we do (college, peace corps!, sports teams), are probably more fun to have a beer with and are entirely as worthy as we are. That it’s important to be able to communicate with people from all walks of life, not just other hyper-educated individuals. Furthermore, that even as a’ lucky person’, you shouldn't yourself be expected to follow this well-cut path to further education and privilege. Just as it is an uphill battle and a huge achievement for someone coming from a poor family to be the first to go to college, it is also difficult for someone from a privileged background to settle for less than is expected, in terms of education, career, life style, etc. It’s fine whichever way you choose…whether you strive to be a lawyer or a struggle at being a barista. Can we just throw our uniquely discriminatory view of ‘laziness’ out the window for good and deeply admire all people who have to cut against the grain of their backgrounds, circumstances, and realities to simply live?