"The better you look, the more you see.” ― Bret Easton Ellis
If you follow me on Instagram , you know I recently converted my Nissan Rogue SUV into a camper with a sleeping platform (post with more info coming soon). I spent most of the summer traveling around the United States and Canada, camping in my car and having the most amazing time.
There was a night or two when I was too excited to get to my days destination to plan in advance where I would stay that night. Now, even though I’m camping in the car, I still stay at campgrounds and have reserved them whenever possible. I’m alone and so I value the security even more that comes with knowing where I’ll be overnight. But on those few nights — one in particular — I didn’t have a plan and ended up sort of frantic unable to figure out where I should go, and if anything would be available when I got there. I also had no cell service, I mean this is the Wild West after all, compounding my anxiety.
There was a moment when I almost started to cry in my overwhelm, and actually thought to myself some form of “I understand how people feel when they don’t have a secure place to stay at night”. Umm… luckily, in about two seconds I had to stop myself from taking both my hands off the wheel to slap myself across the face because, no, I have no idea how that feels.
I am so privileged. I have a car (that I can sleep in comfortably!), I have enough money to get a hotel if I needed to, I have family I can call, I am white, I am decent looking, educated, I have no history of legal trouble, and if I was broken down on the side of the road I am fairly certain every decent person who saw me would have no qualms about stopping to help me.
But that’s not true for everyone. Or even for most people.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, in January of 2015 there were 564,708 homeless individuals on one single night — but we know the “homeless count” is famously difficult to track so it’s estimated between 2 and 3 million people a year actually spend time homeless. That’s insane. That’s the same as (or more than) the entire population of Chicago.
That many people actually don’t know where they are going to sleep at night. They can’t just make a reservation online, or use a different credit card, or call their parents, cry to a park ranger, keep driving a few extra hours for an open camp site -- whatever many of us could do.
So how does this affect me?
“Checking your privilege” has become an almost annoying and overused popculture-y phrase that seems to have lost a little of it’s meaning. So let’s go backwards a little. Privilege is just an advantage that you have — earned or unearned — because of some aspect of your life. It doesn’t mean you don’t have struggles, it just means that you have some advantages other people don’t have. Two things can be true at the same time, remember.
So how do I “check my privilege”? Should I stop doing what I’m doing? Should I spend the money I’m using on converting my car and reserving campgrounds to donate to homeless charities? Should I take a vow of poverty and give all my belongings away? For some people, yes, but I don’t feel led to that. Action that comes from guilt isn’t helping anyone.
For me, checking my privilege is just a way to reflect. Not so much on my own unearned privilege — because privilege awareness in itself is a privileged position to be in, but I digress — but on the unearned disadvantages that others face. Realizing how bad I felt that night without a campsite then realizing this is literally just a shred of what a truly homeless person would feel is an invitation to more compassion and empathy.
“Awareness” has become a dirty word of sorts — “but what does your awareness bracelet do to actually help ______?” But awareness is still an important step in the process of becoming a more equalized society. If we don’t know something is off balance, how do we equalize it? We don’t. We continue to live our lives in the secure and safe bubbles we’ve set up for ourselves, and turn a blind eye to those who experience life differently than we do.
Well I refuse to do that.
I want to know the things that I don’t know. And not confuse empathy with experience.