Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Dispatches from a Refugee in the Land of Privilege, Episode 1: Homelessness Isn''t My Problem

For article/essay technique class yesterday we read Barabara Kingsolver's "Household Words" (found in her essay collection Small Wonders), and I spent most of the class shocked and horrified. If you haven't read it, Kingsolver uses an incident she witnessed while in traffic (an apparently homeless man beating on an apparently homeless woman) and which she did nothing about to discuss homelessness in the United States and Americans' complicity in it. It's an excellent essay, of course; everything Kingsolver writes is amazing. She goes through all the American "fuzzy-blanket myths" related to homelessness, such as "anyone who works hard can make it in the US" and "most homeless people want to be that way." Statements like these seem obviously ridiculous to me, but the people in my class apparently disagree. They proceeded to give every one of the reasons she was arguing against as valid and reasonable.

Can we talk about apathy for just a minute? They pasted the "poverty is more complicated than just handing a dollar to a guy. it's way too big for me to fix it." argument over their lack of give-a-damn and expect that to cover it. I call shenanigans. No one ever said that one person can or should be able to fix poverty and homelessness single-handedly. I wish that was possible, but it's just not. However, it is possible to help one person at a time, thereby making the world just a little bit brighter in the process.

But this post isn't about my belief in positive energy and its ability to change the world. It's about privilege. When I spoke up and said, "Well, I've been so close to their position that regardless of what they eventually use the money for, I will always give them money if I have it. If for no other reason than I would hope that if it was me with the cardboard sign on the side of the road, someone would help me." They not only basically said that there was no way I had ever been close to homeless (because they themselves had never been) but also then spent the next ten minutes recounting tales of homeless people who refused to be helped, etc. I'm not sure where this line of thought is going except that I didn't think people actually thought this way. Where I was raised, people generally didn't think this way, and I don't know how to take this.

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