20-something miseries, social justice

Privilege in a Pandemic: Things Might Get Better for Me After This, But That Isn’t Good Enough

I want to start this by saying that however you are getting through this pandemic is okay. If you need to stop reading this in order to cope, I get it. I’m the same way. I avoid the news like the plague (lol) because any time I get even a tiny taste, I fall apart. Feel free to click away, do something more pleasant, take care of yourself. But for now, I need to grapple with some things that have come to light in this pandemic.

Recently, I have been battling a constant sense of hopelessness. I’ve been hopeless before, but it’s largely been due to self-loathing or misfirings in my brain, rather than the outside world. Now, I am hopeless because of what I see in the world, and I’m not sure I want to fight that feeling.

Don’t get me wrong, I hate feeling hopeless. It’s uncomfortable, it’s exhausting, it’s…just horrible really. I spend a large portion of my day scrolling through my phone trying to forget that I feel hopeless. What I mean is, I don’t know if it’s right to tell myself that things aren’t really hopeless. That things will get better. That things will go back to “normal.”

I have no doubt that we will get through this pandemic. As a species, humans are incredibly resilient and I know things will get better at some point. I’m not worried that this is the end of the world. I’m worried that this is more of the same.

Privilege is Not a Dirty Word, It’s a Reality

Here is my pandemic reality: if I tune out the news, turn off my phone, and stay in my home, I can almost forget this pandemic is going on. In some ways, I can turn it into a blessing. I already worked from home before all this started, but now I get even more time with my husband and baby. All I do all day is hang out with them, write, drink coffee, and watch Netflix. If I just forget why we’re doing all this, it’s actually kind of like paradise.

And that is privilege. That’s crazy privilege. Because I’m middle-class, I’m able to work as a freelancer despite the fact that it’s not always a steady paycheck. This means I’m not an essential worker, and neither is my husband. Because I’m white, I’m statistically far less likely to die from the virus if I get it, and I’m far less likely to have white family members die from the virus if they get it. It’s due to my privilege that I’m able to hole myself up in my house and have weekly Zoom parties with my friends and do my best to forget about the struggles that other people are facing.

This is always the way of privilege. The greatest advantage privilege gives you is the ability to be happy and successful without having to worry about certain things because they simply do not effect you. It’s not my fault, I did not ask to be given this privilege, but I have it all the same. And even though guilt does not help anything, it’s hard not to feel guilty right now.

Guilt Is Not the Solution

You know the quarantine feeling, where you’re sitting in the spot on the couch where your ass has made a permanent imprint and you are angry and sad and suicidally bored and all the sudden you think about how good you have it and then you feel worse because really, you’ve got it good and you are such a dick for complaining.

If you have any kind of privilege (and most of us do, even if we are disadvantaged or oppressed in other areas), you’ve probably felt this well before quarantine. “White guilt” is a popular term you may have heard, or you might have felt uneasy when a relative made a homophobic remark and you didn’t say anything.

It’s natural to feel guilty when we have something other people don’t. That’s a good thing. It means you have basic human empathy. But the problem is, it doesn’t get us anywhere. I have been drowning in guilt and shame for my entire life, and I have never once made any real progress toward breaking down the systems that provide me with the privilege that makes me feel so guilty.

Instead of feeling even more guilty for that, I’m trying to open my eyes and see the things that my privilege means I don’t have to see. I’m trying to consider problems that don’t effect me because of my privilege. And when I do, I’m not gonna lie, things look pretty hopeless.

Letting Go of My Privilege Means I’m Seeing a Very Different World

Technically, I can’t really “let go” of my privilege. There are certain privileges inherent to being white, middle-class, straight, and so on that I do not ask for, but receive and benefit from nonetheless. But I can try to let go of the blinders that privilege creates. And when I do, it’s really hard not to feel hopeless.

Throughout this whole pandemic, the virus has been infecting people equally, but it is not killing us equally. Black and Brown folk are dying at alarmingly disproportionate rates, I’m not sure we even know how badly the homeless population is being affected, and early studies are showing that essential workers are dying far more often than those who are able to stay home.

That last one makes sense, because essential workers have to leave their house every day, but that doesn’t make it okay, especially not for what they’re being paid to risk their lives. Grocery store workers, fast food workers, janitorial workers, they nearly all make minimum wage, and even with hazard pay, that is not enough money to compensate for the service they are doing for society right now. We need them. They are called essential workers for a reason. Without them, our society would literally collapse. And yet, many of them can’t pay their bills or need to work a second or third job.

When things “go back to normal,” it will mean going back to a world where these people’s lives are not valued. For me, it will mean I get to hug my mom again and stop wearing a mask that gives me anxiety and help my sister move into college. But for people without my privilege, it will mean going back to a system that does not see value in what they do, even though this pandemic proves that we simply could not live without them. For Black and Brown populations, it will mean going back to a world that is anything but normal. A world without loved ones who died not because of a virus, but because of deeply entrenched racism.

It’s hard to hope for “back to normal” when I don’t want things to go back to normal.

I want us to do better.

So…What Now?

I wish I could end this post on a hopeful call to action, a quick-fix for the overwhelming hopelessness of our society’s problems, or at least an indication that we’re heading in the right direction. But I’m not sure that we are. And I don’t have any idea what I can do to change any of this. I have no idea how to do better.

Here’s what I’m trying: I’m reading Black authors. I’m listening to disabled activists. I’m widening my circle of influence, not in terms of who I influence, but in terms of who I am influenced by, and I am doing my best to let my guilt inform me on what needs to change rather than letting it deafen me to the actual problems.

I know this isn’t enough, but I hope it’s a start.

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