Thanksgiving and Privilege

This afternoon building a Lego spaceship with an 8 year-old cousin after the family Thanksgiving, I couldn’t stop thinking about potential. And particularly, I couldn’t stop thinking about the way our potential can be thwarted or encouraged by our circumstances – and sometimes by the mentality our circumstances creates. I had this weird moment where I kept thinking about the ways in which this 8 year-old had a few steps ahead of some folks in the world but also of some of the ways he might be a few steps behind. I wonder how easily it would be to predict someone’s future success based entirely on demographic factors: socioeconomic factors, race, gender, religion, etc. I mean, we were just sitting there playing with Legos, and all I could think was, “Yeah! Legos! You’re gonna be an Engineer! Here we are fostering the creative! The possibilities are limitless! Or are they?”

I guess it couldn’t have been a more appropriate time to be thinking all of this. In the context of Ferguson, in the context of Thanksgiving, we’re a nation that needs to be concerned with the ways those demographic factors can either thwart or encourage a person’s potential. Sometimes, we call it “privilege,” but that’s a phrase a lot of folks (at least as I’ve experienced in the South) don’t want to use or acknowledge. But in the context of Thanksgiving, especially, a time where we look at our “plenty” and bow our heads and say grace and thanks for the “plenty” we’ve been given, being privileged is probably something we know better than we’re willing to admit.

Let me see if I can explain this on a level that’s a little more personal: I’m now in my early thirties. I’ve got a Master’s degree from a top-tier university and studied under some world-famous folks. I’m white. I’m male. I’ve got supportive family and friends, a roof over my head, and money in the bank (even if very, very little). I’m world-traveled with a lot of experience in a few fields. But I’ve struggled to find work for two years. And, usually, that’s the point where people will say, “White male privilege?! Where can I get me some of that white male privilege you’re talkin’ about?! Cause I’m struggling here and I don’t see it!” But that’s not the take-away I have at all. Instead, my take-away from this struggle, this humiliating, painful struggle it’s been, is that if it’s this hard for me, how much harder must it be for someone who didn’t enjoy some of the “plenty” I had growing up they never had? How could I ever demonize them for not working hard enough or for not having enough personal responsibility to claim their lives when my work or responsibility hasn’t turned up a whole lot? That is, if I struggle to get work with a Master’s degree and a strong group of folks supporting me – all of whom I couldn’t be more thankful for this year as they’ve advocated on my behalf left-and-right – how am I ever supposed to expect someone who has none of that to pull themselves up by their bootstraps? As another friend said, to paraphrase, how can people who never had boots be expected to pull themselves up by their bootstraps? What, so they can finally get that job at McDonalds or some other major corporation that pays them far below a living wage and nearly guarantees that they’ll be stuck in that cycle?

If you are grateful at all this Thanksgiving for what’s been given to you, then be thankful enough to step into the shoes of those whose opportunities weren’t as grand as yours. That’s really the heart of what people are trying to get at when they talk about “white privilege.” They’re talking about empathy and understanding. After all, for some folks opportunities might have even been nonexistent just because of their skin color or perhaps their gender or perceived sexual orientation or economic status. And if you never had to worry about those things holding you back, maybe be careful before you judge others calling them “lazy.” Because in my two years of searching, there were times where I was tempted to give up, and while I haven’t and won’t (thanks in part to the support network I’ve had that others don’t have), I can at least say that I understand why some might have said, “To hell with it. The whole system is rigged.” Because we live in a world that cries despair for some and hope for others. And that world won’t be just until there’s hope for all. If you’ve wondered why so many religious figures have moved in on doing something about Ferguson, that’s why: a just world seeks to give hope to everybody. It seeks to “un-rig” the whole rigged system. And if you aren’t willing to acknowledge that, to cry foul in the face of those kinds of injustices, then don’t be surprised when you get called racist or sexist or labeled something awful. I don’t know that we help the situation when we rush to those labels always, but those labels are a sign of a kind of righteous rage, of that very growing despair that’s been too-often dismissed or ignored. Because you will hear that despair. And the best way to not have to hear it any longer is to start advocating for hope, by acknowledging where our privileges are, where we had plenty, and by seeking to make sure others have the same advantages. And that’s something we should do often, or at the very least, every Thanksgiving.

A Barbadian Thanksgiving at Sea

I’m not sure how many people know that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  I was standing on deck earlier leaning over the railing and staring at the open sea trying to figure out why that is;  I’ve discovered that staring blankly into a few thousand miles of ocean feeds my brooding mind.  I went out there on this grand mission to spot whales, sharks, porpoises, or dolphins, but I only saw some seaweed and a whole flight school of flying fish.

I did manage to decide, however, that of all the emotions I could think of, the one I’m most connected to and understand the best is gratitude.  And I think that’s why I like Thanksgiving so much.

Mostly, right now at least, I’m just thankful that I successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean in one piece.  I know Mom is happy about that.  Although, I should add – boat lag… is definitely a thing.  I wake up at 4:00 am ready to go, and I’m exhausted midway through dinner.  For the past four consecutive days, my time zone changed each night, making the last four days 25-hour days.  Weird, right?

But with all there is to be thankful for, I think this year is a special Thanksgiving for several reasons.  Maybe part of it is that I’m technically retracing Columbus’ (and other voyagers’) routes seeking the West Indies on the open ocean.  Not exactly same as the Pilgrims but close enough, right?

Or maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that I chose to return to America by boat the same way my grandfather returned from French Morocco after World War II.  When I told that to the Brits at our dinner table, John kinda laughed and said, “I bet your grandfather didn’t travel in this luxury.”  Nah.  But it’s the same ocean.  And now that this story is coming to a close, I think I’ve got this incredible sense of gratitude for him and the impact he left on me.  I catch myself at times smiling the same way he smiled, turning my lips just so and making an almost impish grin that no one else in the world could make the way he could.  I’m thankful for that.

It also occurred to me that much of my last two years was a lot like that first Thanksgiving.  Maybe that’s another reason I find this one so special.  Two wildly different cultures coming together and feasting – both with so much to learn from the other.  That was every day for me for the past few years.

[I realize, of course, that in the years that followed the first Thanksgiving, the natives lost their land, and for many, their lives to some strange notion of divine entitlement among the white settlers.  Sadly, that story was a history lesson we never learned, as even today, the idea that God favors some more than others prevails almost everywhere.  So, it’s worth a mention that I don’t believe any divine force could work that way, you know, favoring Europeans over natives or Israelis over Palestinians or the wealthiest 1% over the 99 below it.  When things work out that way, I don’t find anything godly in all that violence whether it’s physical or financial or emotional violence.  Of course, the irony is not lost on me that, as an American aboard a cruise ship, I’m an incredibly privileged bloke talking about how much privilege disturbs me.  I’m so friggin’ privileged, I even have the education to critique my own privilege.  I guess if you spend two years living in the developing world, and a lot of that time is spent fighting the perception that you’re just a bank, it can be easy to (want to) forget about that privilege, strangely enough.  I remember working really hard to be viewed as my own person and not as just “an American.”  When I realized that one of the families I grew close to, toward the end, really just saw me as a bank, I mentioned to Jon, “I just don’t get it.  They understood what Peace Corps was; they knew I wasn’t wealthy, that I was a volunteer; I even explained to them that I had all these loans waiting for me when I got back to America.”  Jon’s reply was probably one of the wisest things I’d heard in a while, something to the effect of, “Yeah, well, they also understand that you had the opportunity to take out money to go to a really good American school, and eventually, you’ll have opportunities to pay off all those loans.”  That’s when it hit me: there was no use in pretending like we weren’t banks.  We were.  We’re Americans, and we’re privileged, and while we’re encouraged to “live at the level of the people” on a volunteer salary, it made complete sense why we’d never fully overcome that image of being wealthy with opportunities and money.  Because maybe we never should.  It’s better to be honest about who we are, even if that honesty might cause cultural conflict of some kind.  But.  However it’s handled, I won’t ever believe that the opportunities that were handed to me were God’s choosing, as though God chose me over all my Moroccan friends who would kill for the chance to be traipsing across the Atlantic Ocean (or anywhere) like this.  Nor would I ever believe that I, by my own ability to “pull myself up by my bootstraps,” earned or deserve this in any way.  I don’t.  I have it; I took it, because I was privileged enough to be born with an American passport and raised in what really is a land of opportunity.  It’s that simple.  And it’s something I wish I could give everyone, but I can’t.  I can only give up a little bit of my time and my energy to give back, and sadly, even then, I gain more than I could ever hope to give.]

I guess I’m still learning that it’s hard to go from living in the developing world to eating some of the best Italian food I’ve ever had in my life on a luxury cruise ship that has its own gym, theater, casino, cigar shop, wine bar, jacuzzi and pools.  I’ve heard a lot of complaints and conversations in the last two weeks that were pretty shocking – especially shocking when you consider that nearly all the staff are Asian and seem overworked and underpaid.  In some ways, it makes me feel guilty, like I’m somehow contributing to slave labor, and I apologize if that’s an offensive metaphor, but it scares me to think it may not be a metaphor at all.

I’ve also noticed that people who are wealthy, particularly wealthy, love to talk about their wealth.  Or maybe they just don’t know how to talk about anything else.  Or maybe they don’t even realize that not everyone else has been to Barbados four times or can gamble $50K away like it’s no big deal.  I don’t know how to connect with someone like that at all.  I just stare at them blankly or in awe and think fondly of sitting on a wool rug with one little table and one plate where we break bread together and share a communal cup.

My point is that it’s all kind of disjointing.  I look at my plate of food (e.g. tonight’s menu included “rose of prosciutto and kiwi fruit on a pineapple carpaccio, cream of potato soup with baby shrimp and chives, and turkey served with candied sweet potatoes and buttered scallops over an old-fashioned bread stuffing and giblet gravy), and the first shock, of course, is that I have my own plate of food.  It’s my plate, and we’re not all sharing one.  The lines between poverty and wealth are confusing to me.  And for as good as the food here may be, I feel weird thinking that I already miss being… poor.  Or pretending like I was.  Or maybe I actually am poor and right now I’m just pretending like I’m rich?  See, I can’t even keep it all straight.  It’s just plain disjointing.  But I think that’s a good thing, maybe even something worth being thankful for: those little disjointed moments keep us on our toes, force us to ask tough questions about who we are and what, if anything, anyone is “entitled” to – it keeps us… thankful.

I had several little moments today where I thought, “This is absolutely ridiculous.  I’m swimming in the Caribbean; the water is crystal clear.  There is a friggin’ sea turtle right there.  Woah.  Duuude.  It’s a sea turtle, dude.”  Right now, back home, my parents are setting up the Christmas tree in what I imagine is considerably cooler temperatures.  Meanwhile, I’m swimming with turtles and chatting it up with Brits and Barbadians in 93 degree heat with a sunburn.  Life can be strange sometimes.  Crazy even.

But whether we’ve come from the poorest of the poor or the wealthiest 1%, whether we’re layered up in a chilly Tennessee winter prepping for Christmas or turning beet red in Barbados, we all have some little voice crying forth a quiet “thank you.”  We might sound that in our different ways or to different folks, but it’s there across every culture.  I’d like to think that our varied ways of saying thank you, despite their tonal differences, come together like a harmony of sorts, where we’re all really driving the same point home.

Anyhow, we set sail for Guadeloupe a few hours ago and arrive there in the morning.  Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

On Thanksgiving

In one of my English classes this week, I took some time before beginning the lesson to describe Thanksgiving.  I talked about the pilgrimage from Europe and the struggle to yield enough food for the winter; I talked about the friendships made with the local natives and how sharing was essentially what kept everyone alive.  I mentioned the large feast and how, today, we celebrate with a turkey.  I even tried to explain the meaning of the word “thanksgiving,” and how it was a time to be grateful for all we have, as little or as much as that may be.

The whole concept didn’t really seem all that foreign, of course.  Especially with L-3id l-kbir having just ended – you remember, the sheep-slaughtering holiday where a ram is slaughtered instead of Ishmael.  Islam is a religion that is full of thanksgiving.  And of course, learning to be thankful for what you have must always be coupled with your recognition and compassion for those who have less.  In other words, to say you are grateful for that roof over your head, grateful for the copious amounts of food on your plate, grateful that you have family and friends, on some level, demands an act of loving-kindness to show your gratitude to others.  That’s why, in Islam, after Moroccans slaughter the ram, a portion is given to the poor or the homeless.  It’s a way of saying, “We’re thankful that we have plenty, so thankful that we want to share that with those who don’t.”

But it’s not just on the holidays when giving happens.  Charitable giving is a way of life in Islam.  In fact, one of the Five Pillars of Islam demands alms-giving.  A tithe of one-fifth of your wealth per year should go directly to someone in need within your community.  Here in Morocco, which practices Sunni Islam, I encounter that kind of charity all the time.  And that’s saying a lot when you already live in the developing world where people don’t really have a whole lot to begin with; charity is important for everyone, in Islam, even the poor.

Of course, charitable giving isn’t unique to Islam alone.  After all, even Jesus states rather bluntly to the rich man, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come and follow me” (Lk. 18:22).  It’s one of many “hard sayings” that can be found in the Gospels.  In fact, Jesus talks more about money than he does anything else.  He talks more about money than he does about heaven or hell.  Combined.  If that’s a surprise, it’s because money is something you rarely hear any preacher’s discussing in church unless they’re bold enough to ask for money for the church.  After all, when was the last time you met a Christian who “sold everything” or chose to live among the poor?  Not to say it doesn’t happen.  Or that charity doesn’t happen in Christianity.  I know plenty of charitable Christians.  But something different happens in Islam, something where giving permeates the culture in a powerful way.

Maybe part of it is that it’s just expected.  If you’re Muslim, giving is just one of the five things you’re required to do.  In Christianity, although it’s “expected,” it’s a bit more voluntary.  Some might say that means it “comes from the heart,” whereas giving as a “requirement” is more like a tax than a gift.  I disagree.  Because those who give are guaranteed to receive something as great if not greater than the gift they give – something of the heart.  Because giving is receiving.  It fills every heart with thanks.  So even if charity is required, it’s still inevitable that it comes down to a matter of the heart.

So, that’s “thanksgiving.”  And it’s no surprises that I’m saying all that as an American living abroad who was born and raised in the southern United States, in the heart of the Bible Belt.  And so I’m constantly thinking about our attitude as Americans toward “the poor” vs. the attitude Muslims seem to have toward the poor – and just how different that is.  Because here in Morocco, poverty is a part of everyday life.   Even those with money live relatively simply here. And for those with very little money at all, there’s a quiet, empathy that everyone seems to share here when they encounter a beggar.

But in America, “the poor” are a stereotype.  They’ve become the source of jokes about people with bad hygiene or Wal-Mart clothes.  They’re typecast as dirty or lazy.  And even people who call themselves Christians say we should make them pay “their fair share” while easing the burden on the rich.  Whereas there is a support system here in an Islamic country that not only supports the poor financially but also with an incredible level of respect and empathy, there’s a lack of compassion or willingness to understand the poor in America.  And support is not just money.  Support is just as much an attitude we carry with us.  And the support systems we do have – in terms of entitlement programs – are viewed by many as “socialism” that should be cut from the system.  How, again, do we manage to rationalize loving our neighbors with, well, hating them?

I don’t think the problem with the rich man in the Gospel of Luke is that he is rich.  I don’t think Jesus asks him to give up his money so his money can be put toward charity.  There’s nothing in the text, really, that suggests the man is greedy (i.e. though he’s hoarding his money, we aren’t lead to believe he came about his wealth illegally or that he is trying to gain more money or that he made his money off the poor).  It seems the rich man has even lived a moral life, following all the commandments.

If you ask me, the problem with the rich man is that he doesn’t understand the plight of the poor.  He doesn’t understand anything about their struggle to climb out of poverty.  He doesn’t understand anything about the simplicity in their life or how happy they can be at times despite the struggles they may face financially.  He doesn’t understand their culture  of sharing or why there seems to be virtually no boundaries between them, because the necessities in life are better shared; only our cravings do we keep to ourselves as we build up our own little museum houses with our museum junk.  Jesus doesn’t ask the rich man to give up his money to better the poor.  He asks the rich man to give up his money to better the rich man.  To better his spirit.  To open his eyes to a world he’s had the luxury (or misfortune) to avoid.

And that makes it hard for me to really worry about the economic state of our country.  Because maybe an economic collapse will cause some people to open their eyes to a world they’ve had the luxury (or misfortune) to avoid.  Maybe an economic collapse would force us to suddenly care for the poor, the way many of our Muslim friends are already doing so well in places like Morocco.

This Thanksgiving will be a world different for me from last year’s.  Last year, I was still – in some respects – fresh off the plane.  This year, as I gather with friends to slaughter and de-feather turkeys, I’ll remember that Thanksgiving, on the one hand, is a time for me to be grateful for what I do have, and on the other, it’s a time to remember those who have less.

Happy Thanksgiving!

First things first, I am officially a Peace Corps Volunteer.  You might not have known that I wasn’t before now, heh.  But, read this for details.

Otherwise, I’ll keep this relatively short.  Mostly, I just wanted to say that I’m thankful I safely made it to my site in the desert (after ten hours of traveling by myself via train and taxi) with a warm welcome from my host family and a room-full of new stuff I bought from Eric, the volunteer I’m replacing (ranging from a bed to couches to speakers, etc.).  I’m thankful today for my friends and family here and abroad with a special shout-out to my fellow volunteers and one excellent Language and Cultural Facilitator – Beth, Meetra, Lacie, and Driss.  I’m thankful for the bibi (turkey) I ate yesterday afternoon in Rabat after we swore in and shook hands with the Ambassador and the King’s Minister of Youth & Sports.  And I’m thankful for my grandfather, of course, who I think of often in this place.

I think I said in the last post I’d update you on Eid El Kibir, but to be honest, I think I’ve said all I’m going to say about that for now.  Be sure to check out the Vlog, though, because there are some videos there of Eid, along with a few new ones I’ll be uploading of some of the Moroccan landscape via the train.  And I did mention a few things about it in the comments section of the previous post.

There’s a lot going on this week here in Outat.  Tomorrow, I want to apply for the Carte de Sejour (and by “want,” I mean “need” to lest I become illegal living in this country).  Then, and because many have asked, I want to open up a Post Office box.  Some of you (I know who you are) have expressed wanting my address in Outat.  You should not use the Rabat address for sending packages or, really, for anything once I have my new address.  If you have not yet expressed wanting that address, email me, and I will send out a mass email with that address as soon as I have it.  For safety and security reasons, I think it best not to put the address on the blog.  That said, many of you have also asked what you should send me (yes, macaroni and cheese would be awesome).  Once I have the address, I’ll post up a “wish-list,” which I hope to keep updated regularly.  Until then, hold your horses.

Have a warm Thanksgiving, wherever you are.