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Privilege and Blind Liberalism: An Expansion of the Discussion about the Poverty Simulation

I recently wrote about an email sent out by my college advertising a poverty simulation. This would be a three hour event where students could pretend they were living in poverty to experience what it is like. I have already started to discuss the rampant issues with this, but since I had a lot more to say I am revisiting the topic.

At the heart of this lies the opportunity to examine some common problems within liberalism, especially prevalent in wealthy or white liberal circles. That is, liberals who have experienced a lot of privilege often do not see the big picture of social justice issues. Like the above clothing example, or the connection with poverty and obesity.

For example, if someone is working 50-60 hours or more per week, in addition to raising children or other difficult issues, sometimes the extra hour of sleep is worth a quick meal off the dollar menu rather than taking the time to cook a only slightly cheaper, albeit healthier, meal.

Being unable to comprehend all the added struggles of a situation (health, trauma, natural disasters, etc.), or unwilling to take the time to search for them, contributes to unconscious bias against people experiencing these struggles. This in particular is an issue with privileged people across the political spectrum, but it needs to be addressed among my fellow liberals because they so enjoy the idea that they are “open-minded.”

On that note, liberals have a rampant problem with enjoying their own thoughts too much. Liberals really, really love feeling like they are open-minded, woke, social justice warriors, or whatever term you like to use to describe champions of the oppressed, but they are not as big on truly understanding the topics and acting to change the way things are. Whether it is a professor who suddenly cared about sexual assault when #metoo started trending on twitter or a young person who feels empowered by pretending to be impoverished one evening when they have nothing better to do–the trend remains.

It does not matter if they are actually doing something helpful; as long as they are a little educated about the topic and feel strongly that it is bad, they are doing what they think is “revolutionary.” Different justifications exist. “I’m so much more aware of this issue than my relatives or childhood friends. Everything I know is new information to them, so I probably know most of everything there is to know about this.” Or, “I’m on the right side of history championing for the oppressed, I’ve done an hour’s worth of research, and I am a great person for doing so.” Even those who are more informed often are plagued with inaction. Sharing well-worded social media posts is not the same as activism. Spreading awareness is an important first step to solving societal problems, but it’s only one of many. Awareness does nothing without action.

An example I like to use is when someone talks to a church about the horrors of human trafficking then does not fight for teaching young people about consent and healthy sexual relationships. The second part creates lasting change.

The college that hosts the poverty simulation could have done many other things that would have been more educational. If their only goal was to raise awareness, they could have invited a speaker or assigned a summer reading that gives a powerful impression of someone who has actually experienced poverty. Even better, they could have gone beyond the initial awareness. Hosting a panel discussion or having a speaker to discuss why common charity acts often do more harm than good, and what the students in the audience should try to do instead.

The book When Helping Hurts gives a wonderful analysis about this and gives a Christian perspective on churches that are doing an awful job of helping the poor. It also advocates for better long term solutions to wealth inequality, like community programs rather than giving out material items, which can be degrading to the recipient. The college could have helped foster the understanding of how to help alleviate poverty in a productive, empathetic way that. It could have brought up that doing charitable work to feel good about yourself is toxic. Best of all, the event organizers could have used the time and resources to actually do something good in their community. For example, they could have set up an event where they help lower income high school students apply for college or trade school with an emphasis on how to best apply for financial aid and scholarships. Or offer low cost or free childcare to parents in the area that have to get a second job to afford daycare. There are a host of things that would have been better than what they did, many even better than what I mentioned.

The main takeaways are to listen to people experiencing injustice and consider their situations from new perspectives, to focus less on yourself, and less on feeling good about your understanding of oppression and more on the people suffering from it, and to act to make your community a better place for everyone in it. If you care about someone’s pain, don’t be complacent in learning about it. Take real steps to help and don’t brag about it to your friends and peers.

I am a writer, actor, translator, and social activist.

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