There seems to be a lot of criticism when it comes to people like me and my “privileged” life. I know that some critics have accused college-aged kids who travel to the developing world of doing it solely so they can justify their privileged lives. The consensus seems to be that since I am a middle-class, well-educated white American, clearly traveling to the developing world is some need I have to validate myself and satisfy my “emotional needs.”
Which, in a sense, is actually quite true. At least in some cases. I know I’ve definitely seen certain people who live lavish and self-indulgent lifestyles and then somehow justify it because they’ve been to the developing world. Which is complete bullshit to me.
On the other hand, there are individuals who just so happen to have talents and abilities that they have chosen to use for the benefit of others. People who devote their life and a half to making the world a better place and fighting evil. These people just so happen to be “privileged” however, and can therefore not understand the people they choose to help, at least according to certain, to quote Kristof, “armchair cynics.”
Thing is, I don’t think privilege is something to be ashamed about. Sure I was born into a family that was able to provide me with the opportunity for three meals a day, a roof over my head, and good education. But there are many, many other types of privileges out there, and I think focus on simple monetary privileges is both narrow-minded and intellectually conceited.
Some other privileges include intellectual privilege, where one seems to be born with inherent problem-solving and reasoning skills (I know of several individuals close to me who have said privilege, and who I am usually jealous of), or athletic privilege, which gives us athletes like Michael Phelps and Lance Armstrong. I can also say that what I saw in Uganda was a different kind of privilege, one of community. I remember seeing these people who were born with an inherent sense of community, where cripples and HIV-infected children would enjoy the same respect as the village elder. I remember that me and my outsider ways was even a little jealous of that kind of privilege, the kind of privilege I’ve never had in my life.
But here’s the thing about privilege: IT. IS. NOTHING. TO. BE. ASHAMED. OF. If one is told to be ashamed of the fact that they have the opportunity for health-care and education, that’s the same as telling a Ugandan from Abia that he/she should be ashamed of the opportunity they have to take part in and work for the betterment of the community. Should someone be ashamed that they have certain “privileges” that others don’t have? Should I be ashamed that I have access to running water and electricity, the kind that others wish they had? Should those who have privileges different than mine be ashamed of it?
My father and I discussed privilege once. And for him, he thought that “privilege” was reserved for social and economic status akin to families like the Kennedy’s. For us, he said our family wasn’t “privileged,” but instead, “fortunate.” He described our family as being fortunate of the fact that our ancestors decided to leave Ireland for better opportunities. He said that I was fortunate that I had education, health-care, a unique perspective due to being an outsider, and many other things, and that that was different than being “privileged.”
Which is an idea I can get on board with. I don’t consider myself privileged. I consider myself fortunate. I think others are more fortunate than I, and I think others are less fortunate than I. I think that being fortunate is not something I should be ashamed of, but something I should be proud of. Proud of in the sense that someone is proud of their son or daughter. Proud of in the sense of being proud that you have the work-ethic to accomplish your goals, or are able to problem-solve better than others, or that you have a community that you can always fall back on.
The truth is, everyone is fortunate in some way. Some are fortunate with families or community, while others are fortunate with intellect and reason. Fortune comes in many different forms, and there is no reason why we should be jealous of nor covet our own fortune. Instead, we should work to bring that fortune to others. We should work, in our lives, to serve each other, because we all have different kinds of fortune to offer. We all have fortune that we have gained in our own lives, and fortune is meant to be shared. Through sharing fortune with each other, we are able to work for the betterment of each other, not in a condescending, superior vs inferior kind of way, but in a way that makes us more human.
I think part of being human is being able to work to serve others, and I can’t think of a better privilege than the opportunity to serve humanity.
TL;DR: Privilege, or fortune, is nothing to be ashamed of.