by: Kara Crawford
In recent years, certain trends among liberals–primarily young, privileged, white liberals (henceforth referred to as YPWLs)–have become apparent to me. I don’t fundamentally object to most of them, but simply wish that folks would think critically about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. So without further ado, here’s a critical look at stuff YPWLs like:
1. Becoming vegetarian/vegan and arguing incessantly that it is naught but the simplest lifestyle.
I’m not saying that going veg is wrong–quite the contrary. It’s a very healthy lifestyle choice and, when properly implemented, can be very eco-friendly and a lifestyle of simplicity in many regards. But what I wish to problematize is the self-important attitude which I have noticed among many vegetarians/vegans that often translates to, “I don’t consume meat/animal products and therefore am superior to you and your omnivorous ways.
I think back to my two-and-a-half years of vegetarianism in high school. It drove my parents crazy because I was often really whiny when things weren’t veg-friendly. I reflect on that period as one in which I exercised great privilege. Just admit it YPWL veg-heads–being vegetarian/vegan is a privilege, and yes, the world is not form-fitted to your lifestyle, but we get it, and you
don’t need to complain any more.
2. Hating Ronald Reagan but not really knowing why.
YPWLs hate Reagan. I don’t blame them; I do too. But I’m not completely convinced many YPWLs know why they should hate him. But after four years of a major which should have just been called “how to hate free trade and neoliberal economic policy among other things,” I’m ready to impart my wisdom to the underinformed haters out there looking for rationale.
Ever heard of trickle-down economics? Maybe you know it better by GWB’s policy of “give the rich tax breaks and live in the illusion that their additional money will help the whole economy, including the poor.” But we all know this only serves to screw over the poor, because, news flash: most rich people don’t need more money because they already give so much to the less-fortunate. They are rich because they are greedy and don’t pay their workers enough while receiving fat bonuses for themselves. Reagan’s economic policy just doesn’t work.
3. Being agnostic or “spiritual but not religious” because “religion is too harmful.”
I don’t know how to begin counting the number of agnostic or “spiritual but not religious” people I know. Likewise on this issue, I have no fundamental problem with it. If you’ve been keeping up with In Our Words, it’s clear by now that I’m just a little bit Methodist. But what may be surprising is that I sometimes get into a “fake it ’till you make it” slump in spiritual practice, but find much enrichment from my community and justice, both motivated by my religion. So does that make me religious but not spiritual? I call shenanigans.
We all have our separate ways of exercising this need (or lack thereof) which we find ourselves facing, and just because someone does it by disassociating with religion doesn’t make them superior. Which brings me to my problem: to justify their position, many use the excuse that religion has done too much harm. Sure, people have, historically, acted like jerks in the name of religion. But that doesn’t give you free license to act like a jerk against the name of religion. All I’m saying is religion also does some great things. So lay off my choice and find a new reason to be agnostic, please.
4. Crying at heartstring-tugging commercials of starving children in Africa.
Finally, something I do have a fundamental problem with. These commercials are extremely exploitative. I can’t say that enough. To me they say, “look at these brown children with their swollen bellies and let your white guilt lead you to pay my salary!” Now, I understand that such organizations need overhead money to, well, function. But what bothers me is that they lead you to believe that your dollar will save said brown baby, and in the process exploits their pain and suffering for the sake of pulling at your heartstrings, our white guilt, and your pocketbook. There are many more organizations and ways to give that are based in mutuality, empowerment, and respect, rather than in latent racism.
5. Having white privilege discussions without any weigh-in from people of color.
Speaking of racism and white guilt, YPWLs love to have talks on white privilege, though too often without people of color. It’s probably unconscious most of the time, but it makes a marked difference in the conversations. YPWLs love to soothe their white guilt without being made to feel more guilty by those who live daily in the consequences of white privilege. Now again, I don’t think this is necessarily a malicious or intentional exclusion. For goodness sake, I’d be a hypocrite to point fingers and talk about how terrible this practice is.
But simply having conscience of the voices that are missing from the room is a step toward improvement. So rather than finding lots of tokens for each forum of discussion you have, start by making constructive first steps by acknowledging which voices are missing and thinking about what can be done to create a more inclusive space, as well as what the motivators are behind the absence of those voices and what can be done to change that.
6. Going to developing countries for a week and thinking it will radically change the world.
I have no problem with people doing service. I’m almost six months into a year-and-a-half as a volunteer in Colombia. What I believe we need to think critically about is, again, the intentionality behind it all. If we go into such work thinking that we’re going to radically change the world and the lives of each and every person we meet, there will be problems, because that’s just not going to happen. Not in a week, certainly, and I have doubts if it will even happen in my year-and-a-half. So what’s the point?
The key, I believe, lies in deepening our own understanding of mutuality. In truly getting to know “the other,” one begins to see the barriers of difference breaking down, and understands that their liberation is tied to the liberation of “the other.” But those trips that perpetuate the ideology that you’re there to change the life of “the other” and somehow magically pull them out of their marginalization, rather than to build relationships with, listen to, and be changed by “the other,” miss the point, and become much like the aforementioned commercials I object to: exploitation of suffering in developing countries for the self-satisfaction of YPWLs.
Realistically, the list could go on forever. But instead, I’d like to encourage us all to think critically about our actions and opinions. In most cases, the things on this list aren’t inherently bad, but simply require some critical thinking. Without the right reasons behind our opinions and actions, are they even worth doing?
Kara Johansen Crawford is a graduate of DePaul University, with a BA in International Studies and Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies. Kara has been actively involved in activism and community service for much of her life and is particularly passionate about labor justice, queer issues and engaging faith communities on social issues. Kara is currently serving as a Mission Intern with the United Methodist Church at the Centro Popular para América Latina de Comunicación, based in Bogotá, Colombia. Follow Kara on Twitter @revolUMCionaria and on her blog.