People talk about being “privileged” and I always thought, well that’s not me.
I grew up in a modest home, went to public school, occasionally went to the doctor or dentist, ate three meals a day. I continue to live a relatively simple lifestyle.
I think of myself as “just a normal person,” not any more privileged than anyone else. If I even thought about “privilege” I always considered it to be extra opportunities that were offered to rich and important people.
But then I saw something on Facebook that changed my perspective. It said that privilege isn’t just better opportunities, it is also freedom from obstacles. It is not having to fight, every day of your life, against unfair odds. When you look at it like that, a lot more of us fall into the privileged category.
Thinking back on my public education in California, I can see that it was more or less obstacle-free for me. For some of my classmates, however, it must have been a tremendous struggle. Probably as many as 10% of my classmates did not speak English in their homes. At age five, they were suddenly thrown into total emersion of a new language. They then attended 12 years of school without anyone at home who could help them do their English-language homework. Just by virtue of growing up in an English-speaking home, I had an easier time than many others.
I was privileged. Reading about problems with the distribution of the COVID vaccine, especially in Africa and parts of India, we can see how privileged we are to live in the U.S.A. We produce the vaccine here, we have good roads and refrigerated trucks to transport the medicine and we have enough healthcare providers to administer the vaccines.
In rural areas of many developing countries, there is no way to keep the vaccine serum cold enough to preserve it during transport and storage. Village people do not have the wherewithal to go into the cities — twice — to get their shots. They are facing obstacles with a life-or-death outcome on a scale that we cannot imagine, because we are privileged.
There are a million things that can give someone the privilege of living without obstacles in their life: being healthy; being of the majority (race, religion, class, opinion); being free of physical or intellectual disability; being straight; being male; being educated; having educated parents; having food to eat every day.
The list goes on and on. Most people just take their personal situations for granted, never suspecting the advantages they enjoy. There is also environmental privilege: the absence of environmental obstacles or, to put it another way, the presence of necessary resources. It is remarkable how many people in the world, even in our own country, live with daily insecurity about food, water, energy, drought, floods and fire.
Water is life, but only if it doesn’t kill you. Clean water is something that many of us never really think about, but there are two billion people in the world who lack access to clean drinking water.
Water-borne diseases account for 80% of illnesses globally and every two minutes a child dies from diarrhea caused by drinking impure water. In America, about 1.5 million people lack running water, including 40% of Navajo families and many Alaskan Native families. All over the world, women and children spend 200 million hours per day collecting water because they do not have indoor plumbing. Think of the opportunities lost due to lack of a few dollars worth of plastic pipes.
Imagine what those people could do with their lives if they didn’t have to collect water every day. They could go to school or work, ending the cycle of poverty that defines their lives.
In 80 countries, food insecurity is a serious concern. Approximately 870 million people do not have enough food to eat from day to day. In rural areas, farmers must contend with extreme weather or marauding animals and insects that damage their crops.
A herd of elephants walking through a corn field can destroy an entire year’s harvest. It’s good to protect elephants, but who will protect the farmers? In cities, food distribution is a problem. Imagine if the obstacle of food insecurity were removed! With enough food to feed bodies and brains, lives could be completely different.
Droughts and floods create more problems. Deserts make up 33% of the land surface on earth and the people who live in them are always at risk for water shortages and crop failure.
Floods are both a blessing and a curse: soil is revitalized by new silt and nutrients deposited by the water, but crops, animals and property are at risk if the flooding is extreme.
Ironically, in Tennessee, Nashville and Chattanooga are identified as prone to both severe drought and flooding, so we are in double jeopardy from environmental obstacles.
A little adversity can be a good thing. It teaches us to solve problems and handle difficult situations. But never-ending, soul-crushing barriers in our lives cannot have a positive spin.
Some people are new to adversity, while others have been living in a cycle of poverty or discrimination for generations. Some obstacles can be hidden, while others, such as race or gender, might be forever obvious.
Everyone wants a good life. But a barefoot person can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They need help just to get boots. Whether through foreign aid, private assistance, restitution or affirmative action, if there is a way to make up for past and present obstacles, then I am all for it.
We can’t all be famous, beautiful, intelligent or even happy. But we can be nourished, educated, have access to medicine and be treated with common courtesy. We can help others and others can help us.
We can extend our hands in support and kindness. Consider it a privilege.
Kathryn Hunter is from McMinn County and holds a bachelor’s degree in Forest Resource Management from the University of Idaho and a Master of Forestry from Yale University. She has worked with the USDA Forest Service locally as well as living and working in natural resource management and protected area conservation in eight foreign countries.