Privilege and Egg Salad

Today, I am exceedingly privileged.

I parked on campus, walked to my favorite vegetarian dive coffee shop and ordered my stand-by favorite lunch of egg salad on wheat with lettuce, tomato and sprouts accompanied by a side salad with orange-tahini dressing. I handed over my $7.95 and rounded up to $10 for a tip. I exchanged pleasant conversation with the hipster student working the counter, then walked to my office building where I chilled my lunch in the fridge and popped a Keurig of hazelnut coffee into the staff lounge coffee maker.

I am exceedingly privileged.

I had just come from a very different set of circumstances. I met my field student at one of the neighborhood food pantries operating in our zip code area. It was a new site to both of us. The volunteers were grateful for extra assistance, and I sincerely believe had helpful intentions. However, the pre-pantry conversation left me stunned. There were clear restrictions placed on receipt of food by age and worthiness: able bodied people under age 40 would not be served. The doors were kept locked between visitors who entered one at a time. There was discussion of people being “busted” for trying to use the pantry more often than once a month. Finally, after what seemed like aching minutes of biting my tongue, I offered up some food for thought to the pantry’s volunteers about systemic oppression, chronic stress and unemployment, and the possibility that abundance rather than scarcity might be a better philosophy for both social work, and for ministry. In a moment of grace, someone offered up that they admittedly did not know…and could not imagine…what it would be like to need to rely on basic support from a food pantry month after month. I felt like there might be hope for teachable moments, but I still found my car headed to the solace of my own faith community down the road to soak up the presence of my colleagues there who are motivated by Justice and abundance. I needed a reminder of their faith and mine to keep myself whole.

I am exceedingly privileged.

Sometimes, I can take it for granted that those of us who work as social workers, clergy, human service professionals and lay volunteers share a common vision. I remember back to the first time I heard about structural inequality. It was like a knife cutting through the piles of rhetoric about those who are “deserving.” We do not live in a world of equal opportunities for all. We live where some people can access food, education, transportation and medical care while others struggle for those same essentials. It is hard work to feed, shelter and clothe a family in a system that is broken. Add to that layers of racism, sexism, classism, heteronormativeness, agism, ableism that compounds the stress of living in the middle of constant chaos. You aren’t even given a script for the act you are expected to perform. You are just expected to “rise above” and act like those of different experiences than your own because they have power, and you make them uncomfortable simply by your presence. The amount of mental fortitude it takes to walk in the doors to a food pantry and ask for assistance month after month astounds me. It’s why I always stand up, shake hands, and introduce myself. My person recognizes and honors your person, and your person recognizes and honors mine. It is step one to dismantling the oppression that surrounds us, invisible unless we choose to open our eyes.

I am exceedingly privileged.

Back at my office, I shared my egg salad sandwich with my friend. I also shared my reflections on the morning, along with this food I had acquired by swipe of bank card. We shared thoughts on any number of topics, actually. No one asked us why we were stopping mid-day to eat. No one hurried us along or rolled their eyes because we stopped to converse. No one commented on the food choices we made. We talked about how much we love grocery shopping, meal planning browsing through our chosen grocery stores to which we can and do drive. I realized that one of my favorite aspects of the food pantry where I typically serve and supervise is shopping. I value offering choice because I value choice. Even if choices are not perfect and sometimes options are more plentiful than others…there is choice. In a world where your options are limited, choice is a luxury. It might be collards and cake, or mashed potatoes and meat. I respect the ability of people to choose. I love walking, and talking, and being real about our frustrations with what our kids will and won’t eat and what our favorite meals are to cook. Talking makes us human. Step two in dismantling oppression.

I am exceedingly privileged.

I finish up prep for my afternoon class, Social Work with Oppressed Groups. Tonight, race and ethnicity is our topic. I close my eyes, thinking about the perfectly good lecture I have planned. I post my PowerPoint to the learning management system instead so they can access it after class. I re-read a few chapters from Ben Campbell’s book, Richmond’s Unhealed History. I call to mind one of my favorite documentaries about environment and place as social determinants of health. I decide that my students will watch and hear stories of structural inequality tonight, and we will move away from the labeling of race at an individual level and instead climb into the complexity of institutionalized racism and the structural and historical inequalities of our own city. I include photos of the same neighborhoods that border the building where we hold our class in previous decades, and we discuss an unhappy history of forced segregation. I expose information they didn’t hear in high school, and many would rather ignore than wrestle with. We speak of unsettling things, and focus on macro change. Before we part, they are asking questions about advocacy, government, and structural change. They are unsettled. They are the change of the future. This is the third step in dismantling oppression.

I am exceedingly privileged.

I rest tonight, in the comfort of my home. We choose what we want to eat, and we cook together. I feel compelled to write, so after homework is done and the dishes are in the dishwasher, I sit in some quiet space. In this quiet space, I pray. For volunteers and students and those who hunger and thirst, I pray. For those who hugged me and talked with me and supported me today, I pray. For those whose lives will be impacted by the system changes my students will bring about in their careers, I pray. For those who hold office and advocate for the oppressed, I pray. For family and friends and neighbors, I pray. And I write, as I recognize my privilege. And I write, because my privilege gives me a voice. And I hit “publish” and hope that this story…my egg salad and my privilege…nourish those who need sustenance and unsettle those who need unsettling.

I am, indeed, exceedingly privileged.

About harasprice

Professor of Social Work and Priest in The Episcopal Church, parent, teacher, learner, writer, advocate, and grateful traveller along this journey through life
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2 Responses to Privilege and Egg Salad

  1. You are an amazing person and writer. I usually do not read long posts…..except yours, because they suck me in every time! 🙂 Your attitude is shared by me and I wish more felt the same way. I do believe it is about education and exposure….and remembering that we are no better than those we reach out to. It is our obligation on this earth, (in my opinion) to give, to help, to share, to listen, to comfort, to respect and to love. We don’t do that by throwing mashed potatoes on someone’s plate. We do that by looking into their eyes and treating them the same as we would treat anyone else. Thanks for your words of wisdom and hope.

    • harasprice says:

      Thank you, and thank you for reading my musings on the life lessons that sink in for me. I never regret the time I spend meeting and greeting another person wholly. In fact, it transforms me every time.

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