I’m about to write about economic inequality in the Philippines while sipping on third-wave coffee in a boutique cafe. Is something wrong with this picture? I’ve only lived in the Philippines for a month, but I’ve jumped headfirst into the conversation on its social issues. Within my summer fellowship, I’m the “bougie” one, thanks to my love of yoga, food blogs, vegetarianism and indie magazines. All these things now feel questionably irrelevant outside my East Coast bubble, but I still find myself pining for that lifestyle in Manila. As a Filipino-American returning to the motherland, I’m constantly reminded to “check my privilege.” It’s been harder than I thought.
Before I go deeper down the rabbit hole, I’ll be the first to admit the trickiness of this subject. I’ve become so meta about it, just the act of writing an op-ed on privilege, for an audience in U.S. higher education, somehow feels incorrect. It’s like I’ve wandered into a landmine where one wrong step means an explosion. So, for right now, I’ll attempt to stay still and understand the landscape and politics of it all. Before finding the right direction out, I just want to know where I stand and how I relate to others standing somewhere else.
The other day we met with an angel investor in the Philippines. His story is a classic in the world of social entrepreneurship: 10 successful years as a financial analyst, a turning point when money lost its shine and finally a pivot to use wealth for social good. After all that, he told us something that stuck with me, “You can entertain yourself with endless distractions and avoid confronting all the hard questions, just as long as you have the money to buy the distractions.”
I’ve been mulling a lot over what he said — getting borderline philosophical. Maybe it’s not so much about the actual money, but rather that bliss of ignorance that inherently comes with it. To pull from British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, it’s one thing to be ignorant, but it’s another thing to be ignorant of ignorance. In other words, what’s the difference between choosing to distract yourself and being distracted without even realizing it? I’ve reached a point where if I want to live in carefree oblivion, it’s a deliberate choice.
In a fit of writer’s block and confusion, I looked up privilege in the dictionary. Privilege is a noun that refers to freedom, entitlement, exemption, honor and immunity. Granted, many of these things conventionally require money. They also encourage the distractions that the investor spoke of. But after some thought, I realized that privilege comes in different forms. Although my socioeconomic status remains the same, the privilege to ignore certain problems has morphed into something else.
Here in Manila, I’ve lost the immunity from bigger issues outside my own world. It now feels wrong to dwell solely on the blessings and troubles of the upper middle-class. The need to eat healthy and organic loses relevance against the need to eat at all and the anxiety of Georgetown’s exclusive clubs pale in comparison to the challenge of access to basic education. If only for a month or two, I’ve lost the protection of distractions. I’ve seen things stripped down to the hard and difficult truth, albeit from the towering skyscrapers of Manila’s financial district. It’s a paradox that we as fellows continue to grapple with.
When I come back to Georgetown, do I revert to old habits without a second glance back — stressing about club apps, buying Sweetgreen salads, making sure I don’t have classes on Friday, etc. etc.? Or do I make the deliberate effort to look beyond those distractions? What does it mean that I now have to decide? I’ve already dwelled so long on my own conception of privilege, another privilege in itself — so, enough of that. I think I’ve cultivated enough self-awareness to move past esoteric semantics and refocus on the more pressing problems at stake.
I joined this fellowship to understand social impact in the Philippines and how I could contribute to the movement. I say my privilege to ignore has weakened, but when it comes to the privilege of resources, this experience has given me so much. In a different way, I’ve gained immense privilege in the form of important connections and limited opportunities, something I’m extremely grateful for. By looking past the distractions, I’ve recognized the potential of untapped resources.
Given my current place in the system, wherever that is and regardless of how I got there, I ask myself what I can do with what I have now. To start, I plan to join the Beeck Center for Social Innovation as my first baby step to leverage Georgetown’s resources. From there, I hope to combine the values of social entrepreneurship with the skills and opportunities of an international business degree.
Above all, I want to use whatever assets I have in collaboration with those of others, however different or similar they may be. In doing so, I want to work hard to move myself forward in life while including others in the process, drawing out their strengths in addition to my own.
I think it boils down to finding shared value. No matter where you lie on the tricky spectrum of privilege, we all have our own unique way of helping each other out.
Sarah Santos is a freshman in the McDonough School of Business. Coconut Girl appears every other Friday.
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