Don’t be so Materialistic: It’s Just Stuff
I love the environmentalism in Portland. I love that there are events like Race Talks, and that you can find safer spaces in most parts of the city. I love that we go to events where we introduce ourselves with our name and pronoun, and the patches that say things like “nice gender, did your MOM pick it out for you?”. I love that every party is a potluck. I am glad to live in a city that is populated by people who give a shit, and who try to be decent. It’s not like where I lived in LA, where people call you a hippy for recycling your soda cans, or like the small town of Phelan (where I grew up), where white folks hang confederate flags and shamelessly call racism “free speech”. Unfortunately, Portland is one of the most content white cities I’ve ever seen. Other cities know they’re not doing everything they can. Portland is constantly begging people of color for goddamn vegan, gluten free cookies for Good Allyship™, even when we’re still hurting.
One of these Good Allies™ told to “check my privilege” when I was homeless, hadn’t eaten a full meal in almost 6 weeks, and having a huge crisis with my chronic heart problem that could be life threatening. Minutes before our little talk, my heart was acting up and I had decided not to go to the hospital. I didn’t have anywhere to keep my support dog during a potentially multi-day hospital stay. I was in college, which I could not put off because my only income was financial aid. I had my dog in her carrier. It looked like a gym bag, which meant I could sneak her into class easily. I was in student government, and running the student food pantry. I was dedicated to ensuring the food pantry thrived because I understood first hand the critical need it served. I was relying on the food pantry — and my new dumpster diving hobby — for sustenance.
In this instance, someone was “calling me in” because I “didn’t appreciate the luxury” of being in college. This person had no way of knowing that I quietly cried in class every day because I was so happy to have access to lab equipment. It was the first thing I needed to be on my way to medical school — my dream at the time. I wanted to be a pediatrician. The fact that I could even dream of being a doctor is all my family wanted for me. Every time I sat in the classroom, I would get totally overwhelmed. I would think of my Tata, and how he once was so thirsty that he drank from a lake without boiling the water. A giant piece of actual shit floated by him. He waited for it to pass, and then KEPT DRINKING because he was so thirsty he didn’t care if it killed him. It didn’t kill him, though.
Every day in class, I thought about how as a child he broke into a chicken coop, and took an egg. He knew if he brought it back to his family, he would have to share it with his siblings. He knew if he could just eat the egg to himself, he’d have more energy to get food for the rest of his family. He cracked the egg into his mouth, and ate the thing raw. He didn’t think it was a big deal, but when he told the story he knew it would get big reactions from us, and that he would get a big laugh. Every day in class, I wished he was still alive so that I could tell him that I was in college. “Tata, we made it” I would say, and he would know that the sacrifices he and Nana made were not in vain.
I know the strength that compelled my grandmother to beat cancer twice was in my blood, and that’s why being without housing, money, access to medical care, or any other luxuries was something I was destined to overcome. It wasn’t “just lab,” it was the accumulation of multiple generations of my family’s struggle for a better life.
I didn’t mind bringing my 13 lbs dog to class on top of my school books. I didn’t mind awkwardly accepting free food. I didn’t mind making friends really quickly so that I could have a couch to sleep on, and texting people the address just in case I went missing after. I knew the situation was embarrassing, and not without hardship, but it was the opportunity my family sacrificed so much for. It was in my blood to rise to meet the challenge.
What I DID mind was this asshole telling me to check my privilege. Yes, keep your friends in check, but when a person you hardly know walks into an office you share and gasps “oh my god my midterm is today?!” upon looking at their calendar, maybe don’t turn this into an opportunity to say we’re so privileged to be in college. First of all, that’s gaslighting and ableist. If they have anxiety, that’s valid- even if they did have many other privileges. It’s not helpful at best, and gaslighting at worst.
It’s not just a midterm, it’s a midterm that, due to my circumstance I didn’t have the chance to study for. It’s not just class, it’s the opportunity my family dreamed I would have that I wouldn’t dare take for granted.
Portland needs to really think about how ableist, racist, and classist the whole “chill out, check your privilege” mindset really is. Refrain from comforting people with “I mean if you didn’t study just be thankful you can retake it”, or outside of school, “it’s just a phone, chill. There are more where that came from.” You are not comforting many people outside of your own demographic this way. You are ignoring the fact that not everyone in your community has the financial access you do. It’s not just a class, it’s generations of sacrifice for a better opportunity. It’s not just a phone, it’s two years of underpaid labor and saving for something nice. It’s not just a book, it’s one of few books that I didn’t get from the library, and that I own. That ownership is so special to me. Every book I buy I keep the receipt as a sentimental bookmark. It’s not just a pair of shoes, it’s the first pair of shoes I was able to get without holes in the bottom after three months of wet socks. I can’t “just move somewhere else” if it doesn’t work out, my only option is to make it work out. That is how we survive where I’m from. It’s never going to be as easy as it is for you. It’ll be two more generations before anyone in my family can really “chill out about stuff, bro”.
White Portland, if you’re not going to make sure it’s accessible to everyone, if you’re not going to buy us “just a phone” or “just some food” or “just a set of books”, you have no right to tell us that it’s “just” anything. You especially can’t tell us it’s “just college”.