A few thoughts on privilege

In my first week of classes at (famous university), I struck up a friendship with a girl from Russia, who was seated on my right in a course. The two of us decided to go out to lunch, and were joined by two boys who had been seated behind us. We were all white–three of us were from California.

So we duly all trooped off to lunch, and talked about our classes and why were taking them and how we chose (famous university) while we waited in line. Our lunching spot was the kind of place where you went through a line, ordered what you wanted, waited a few minutes, and grabbed it from the cook. I was first up–I ordered mixed steamed vegetables in rice. The boys behind me also ordered vegetable dishes. The Russian girl seemed a little bit bewildered by the menu. She turned to me and whispered in her flawless English: “where is the meat?” The restaurant we had chosen was vegetarian–a natural choice for the boys and I, all vegans. But, for her, it was a totally alien concept. Eventually she settled upon a dish, which she ended up greatly enjoying, but it got us talking about vegetarianism.

I had been vegetarian since the age of 12 at the time, and vegan since I was 15. It was a natural choice that I made–a lot of my friends were vegetarian, I thought it was a healthier diet, I didn’t want to hurt the animals, and so forth. The boys made similar arguments about their vegetarianism. Our Russian companion, who had been in America all of a week, said:

“This is what is amazing about America. I love it and am simultaneously terrified by it–the thought that you get to make choices about what you do.”

We asked her to elaborate.

“In my part of Russia, meat is all there is. Vegetables don’t grow that well and they are expensive. So you have to eat meat. It wasn’t until high school that I found out there were vegetarians, but it was something none of us could even consider! The price! And even if you had that kind of money, the vegetables aren’t that good or varied, so I don’t think it would be healthier. Thus, you eat meat all the time.”

I’ve spent a fair amount of time living and traveling in less privileged countries. I am aware that people don’t get to choose their diets a lot of the time, and as a traveler I was sometimes frustrated by the lack of options. But I had always returned to America, land of supermarkets and plenty, and my diet had readjusted myself. It was a very eye opening moment to actually stop and consider that what I considered a matter of personal choice was largely a matter of privilege. It wasn’t that I examined all my options and decided to go vegan, it was that the options were there, and I took them. I was lucky enough to live in a society where my choices could be accepted. At that moment, I felt sort of frivolous for being vegan*.

There’s a lot of discussion in the world about privilege–white male privilege, first world privilege, and so forth. I think that it’s day to day experiences like this, though, that give me a deeper understanding of how lucky I am, in many ways. I may bitch and complain about my poverty, but I am ashamed when I stop and consider all that I have despite that poverty. I chose to become vegetarian and later vegan and had access to the foods I needed to succeed, for example. While I might like to think otherwise, my life has not been characterized by wants and needs which weren’t being met. Compared to most Americans, I am poor. Compared to most Americans, my childhood was characterized by poverty and…Peculiar…living conditions. But compared to the rest of the world, I’m not doing so badly. It’s a strange feeling to have–that I got grants in college for not having enough money, but that many people elsewhere in the world would be happy with a quarter of my resources. I think it’s easier for us to see disparities in our own society than for us to compare across societies, and that’s a pity. There certainly are disparities in American life between different races and sexes, but sometimes these disparities seem to pale to me when compared to the rest of the world. I rather wish it was easier for us to think about these disparities, because it might drive us to take action, rather than just writing about them.

*A particularly succulently prepared wild boar served on a bed of wild rice with chantrelle cream in the fall of 2003 wooed me firmly back into the pro-meat camp, and I haven’t looked back since, although I do tend to eat/cook vegan most of the time because it’s healthier, and cheaper, than eating dead animals.