Tag Archives: Nicholas Kristof

The Poor Don’t Deserve To Own Cell Phones

At a neighborhood block Christmas party two senior citizen gentlemen and I were chatting over hors d’oeuvres when the topic turned to local indigents.

A recent fire destroyed a childcare center less than three blocks from our homes. Between our houses and the former center lies a sliver of an eco green belt, in which several halfway houses lie tucked hidden from view, their occupants mostly people of color. One of the two seniors spoke of seeing a young black teenager walking through the green belt, which abuts his own property, reading a newspaper’s comic section, then crumpling and discarding each finished page onto the ground.

Since our discussion began on the topic of today’s high incidence of young people bereft of responsible adults in their lives, I assumed his comment would be sympathetic and supportive of these many children’s plight. Instead, this on-the-surface very kind, amiable, elderly gentleman’s “compassionate concern” entailed calling out to this young African-American boy, and informing him that if he sees him discard his paper trash one more time he would call the police and have him arrested.

This comment prompted the other senior to likewise comment on what he found socially disturbing: “Have you seen the panhandlers with their hand scrawled cardboard placards asking for handouts at the intersection of X-Road and Highway-Z?” “Yes,” I replied. He proceeded, “The other day I saw one of them asking for money while talking on a cell phone! Well! He lost whatever sympathy he might have received from me!”

poor

Let me try by rephrasing to understand the message unspoken yet central to these two gentlemen’s perspectives, because it is so prevalent and similar-to-identical with so many privileged people’s perspective. . . .

If you’re needy, destitute, hard up, in a word penniless, and, you’re relying on or asking for financial assistance from others, including government, then you should not, nor do you deserve to own or make use of any item or service that might be perceived by those socially, politically and economically privileged to be “luxury” or “non-essential?”

On the surface this type of reasoning seems, well, reasonable.

For instance, during my “poorer by degree” (PhD) study days, my family survived on a small graduate studies’ stipend, plus, a $1,000/month gift from a radiologist friend and his wife. During this four-year, self-inflicted academic sojourn, while my kids’ friends all had cable TV, we opted not to, primarily because of how such a “luxury item” might be perceived by our benefactors.

A disturbing hypocritical incongruity lies behind or at the root of these two elderly, white mens’ mindsets, as well as many socially and economically privileged people.

That is: Privileged individuals, particularly segments of my own North America, have few qualms in denigrating and chastising the poor for their misuse of resources or welfare assistance, yet give no self-thought to the privileged freedom of choice they have in determining what to spend their excess monies and privileges on.

Although it would be prudent of the needy not to use a cell phone while simultaneously holding out a hand or holding up a sign asking for money, it would be equally smart for the well-to-do not to disparage or judge the poor, while simultaneously and hypocritically demonstrating environmental and social justice insensitivities by their misuse or paltry sharing of excess prosperity and privilege.

Which is a greater travesty of socioeconomic place, privilege and resources?

A panhandler with a mobile phone, with which s/he might call 911 to save someone’s life, or perhaps, simply keep in touch with a family member concerned for their well-being, or a moderate to wealthy individual’s pursuit and purchase of items unquestionably “excess” or “privileged” in a world of escalating socioeconomic inequities?

Given such unconscious two-facedness, even duplicity, no wonder two-time Pulitzer Prize winning op-ed columnist for The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof, in his fourth of five thought pieces on “When Whites Just Don’t Get It,” stated the following–“One element of white privilege today is obliviousness to privilege, including a blithe disregard of the way past subjugation shapes present disadvantage.”

Obliviousness to privilege, and an ignorance or disregard for the past, aka social history’s persistent stifling and subjugating effect on marginalized peoples, are predominately a white (WASP) malaise, the result of isolationism.

Isolationism typically refers to political and international matters, as in: “a nation’s policy of remaining apart from the affairs or interests of other groups, especially the political affairs of other countries.”

I use the term to refer to individuals, even entire groups or classes of people, who live such isolated, even segregated apart-heid type daily lives, that they seldom, if ever, have interest, reason or requirement to experience, let alone understand life from the perspective of the struggling, stereotyped or simply “different Other.”

This de facto isolation of each nation’s privileged from the majority of its citizens’ daily and real life (lived) experience, results in an unconscionable obliviousness to privilege, which, in turn, more often than not results in insensitive and paternalistic attitudes, statements, even political and market policy decisions that exacerbate those, whose lives are already defined by a mere struggle to survive.

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The Unknown and Unimagined Life of Being a (Black) Problem

IMAGINE for a moment that you were black, brown, yellow, whatever color, really–even white–as long as it’s not the reigning color of hegemony in a given place (hegemony=the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group).

The important point of imagining is that you belong to a segment of society that for what seems forever has been bereft of sociopolitical and economic power, resulting in a troubled state of life, being, even self-identification.

Imagine that you personally, or members of your family or community have recent and past memory of being routinely profiled, unjustly or disproportionately incarcerated, disenfranchised, subjugated, enslaved (forced marital and family separation, rape), derided, stereotypically blamed for high crime rates and indulgent abuse of welfare subsidies, a member of “the native problem,” and most shameful of late, given racially charged incidents such as occurred in Ferguson, MO, publicly ridiculed on prime time by “news” hucksters, the likes of whom resemble a wily red fox.

One North American, who not only successfully imagines, but also in a two-part Op-Ed risks exposing and challenging “smug white delusion,” and who knows first-hand a smidgen, at least, of what it’s like to be non-privileged in a democracy that often evidences a one-step forward, two-steps backward reality in matters of economic inequity and race relationships is The New York Times Op-Ed columnist, twice Nobel Peace winner, and “honorary African” (according to Desmond Tutu), Nicholas Kristof.

Similarly, Nadine Gordimer, former South African writer, anti-apartheid activist and Nobel Peace laureate, in a chapter story, “Ah, Woe Is Me,” (from Selected Stories), shares a white, apartheid-era, self-awareness moment, through the narrative of a white woman and her former obese and physically debilitated black “servant” Sarah.

In the short story, one of Sarah’s three children, a daughter arrives unexpectedly at Ma’am’s doorstep after years absence. Once the apple of her mother Sarah’s eyes, in terms of potential as scholar and aspiring teacher, the girl is now disheveled and anguished in appearance–the result of forced withdrawal from school due to lack of school fees, as well as her unyielding duty to care for her bedridden mother.

Ma’am nervously and immediately bombards the young “location” (black township=where black people were consigned to live under apartheid) girl with questions about her mom’s health, the girl’s schooling, her siblings, her father’s loss of job, the hardships of life in the location, et cetera.

Abruptly, almost, she becomes self-conscious of the incessant and personally detached nature of her questioning, and shares with the Reader this bit of inner self-discourse:

“I always had the curious feeling that they (Sarah’s children) were embarrassed, not by me, but for me, as if their faces knew that I could not help asking these same questions, because the real state of their lives was unknown and unimagined by me, and therefore beyond my questioning.”

This representative apartheid-era white woman, who lived in a white’s-only suburb, and who not only had the economic means to hire household servants, but also belonged to the ruling political power–one capable of dictating and enforcing upon everyone different to themselves not only where they would live, but what and how they should think of themselvesin a narrative flash realized she knew absolutely nothing about, and could imagine even less, what day-to-day life was really like for a non-white in apartheid South Africa.

Uncanny in similarity are W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1903 words in The Souls of Black Folk–

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy, by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ they say, ‘I know an excellent colored man in my town,’ or, ‘Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil?’

At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ I answer seldom a word.

To not personally know what it’s like to be “a problem,” profiled, incarcerated or a systematically disenfranchised person or people is understandable, particularly if your life has been one of disproportional privilege than struggle and hardship.

An unwillingness, however, to attempt vicariously imagining what another’s life must in reality be like, is inexcusable, and reflective not of power, but of fear–a fear of what your conscience, like Ma’am’s, might instruct and compel you to act upon, given your new awareness.

 

Note: One example of one city’s bipartisan, interracial, and intentional effort to understand “the other’s” life experience and narrative of pain, is Richmond, Virginia’s Initiatives of Change and Hope In The Cities. They promote trust building through honest and courageous communities of dialogue.

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