This reflection was originally posted on November 26, 2015.
The obvious corollary to giving thanks is to recognize that things you are thankful for are not enjoyed by everybody—or, in other words, privilege. Consider:
“On our way back to the subway station, it was raining, and I offhandedly said, ‘oh, man, these tennis shoes aren’t great for the rain. Look, my toes are already soaked.’ A minute later we came upon a man sitting on the street in the downpour, homeless and holding a sign asking for help. He wasn’t wearing any shoes. My life is unbelievably easy. I found out I have the tiniest bit of new cancer, and people gave me pizza and cake.”
Consider that there are a number of ways to be marginalized in this country—and consider that there are a number of ways that those with power in this country have done so to its own, all the way from 1620 (and beforehand), and a number of ways in which those who are here have marginalized those who are not. Here is one that people are talking about, but not in this context.
If you are making a true living wage, do not have rapidly mounting credit card debt, have money in the bank, or have enough money for rent and food, you are already doing better than most people are in this country. The bottom 20% of households in the United States, over sixty million people, actually have less than zero wealth as a whole.
I graduated from college with two degrees, including a Bachelor of Science in chemistry, in May of 2008. Since then, I have gained two more advanced degrees and have worked at nine different jobs. My current job, which I started in August 2015, is the first one that I have ever had where I have an effective wage rate of more than $12.50 an hour. Seven of those nine jobs required a college degree. Six required additional postgraduate training. My nine years in college and beyond required roughly $300,000 in tuition. My two ‘more marketable’ degrees took up $280,000 of that price tag.
I am privileged because I went to a school district with an embarrassment of resources at their disposal to help me out. I am privileged because I did not require loans to get through undergrad or through grad school (the first time). I am privileged because I had parents who could afford to help me out at a couple points in my life where I was not making enough money to buy food or make rent while going through school (working when I was able). I am privileged because I was able to take time to not work to study for the LSAT. I am privileged because I was able to move back in with my parents while working after grad school. I am privileged because I was able to continue to save money for law school while making $10 an hour and not guaranteed full-time hours. I am privileged because I went to a law school that could virtually guarantee me some sort of employment immediately after graduation. I am privileged because I have assistance from my school on my six-figure loan balance. I am privileged because even as I fell behind on rent payments not once, but twice, I had the financial flexibility to transfer obligations to credit, sell some of my possessions, and make my roommates whole eventually without damaging my credit. I am privileged because it has only taken me three months at this job to reach the point where my credit card balance is lower than my bank account balance. I am privileged because I have been educated on principles of financial literacy. I am privileged because I have not needed a true living wage, whether $15 an hour or more, to merely break even in this country; I have access to family money that over sixty million people in this country do not have.
I am privileged because I have people who are concerned about me. I am privileged because history has aligned itself to allow my ancestors to come here, even as others have been excluded and many here have been otherwise oppressed. I am privileged because even if I am under the influence of drugs, the first instincts of police who encounter me will not be to shoot me.
I am privileged because I have shoes.
Being thankful is important, but it is important in large part because it implies that we recognize the privilege which we have had thus far in our lives. If we cannot turn thankfulness into awareness of privilege, I do not know how we can then take the next step, not only to “promote the general Welfare” but to ensure the continued health of our society.