The Arrogance of CharityEssays, Social Justice — By Linda Brendle on April 9, 2012 at 10:52 am
I’ve been getting a lot of “social justice” input lately. In addition to Christian’s blog which focuses a lot on the subject, a friend lent me the movie The Help, another friend lent me the book by the same name, and Blockbuster finally sent us Blind Side after months on the waiting list. All that input gave me a lot to think about. I had at least one awake-in-the-wee-hours morning along with several unproductive session at the keyboard trying to organize my thoughts into something coherent. After working for several days on a post about the lack of choices available to the disadvantaged, I realized how arrogant it was of me to try and understand the problems of those who have never enjoyed the privileges I have. I also realized how arrogant we privileged sometimes are in our acts of charity, assuming we know what others want and need without giving them a choice.
Thanksgiving is a time when we traditionally focus, not only on our own blessings, but also on the needs of others. Food drives spring up all around, and the evening news shows truckloads of canned goods being donated to homeless shelters and food banks. I can’t count how many jars of peanut butter, boxes of macaroni and cheese, and cans of tuna I’ve purchased and donated over the years. I’ve handed out bags of food at a church Friendship House, and I’ve helped pack and deliver boxes of food in the community. But I’ve never asked the recipients if they liked tuna or if they were allergic to peanut butter or if they wanted ham and turkey for Thanksgiving.
Another choice those of us with privilege take for granted is what we wear. Most of us have at some time in our life been given a gift of clothing from a well-meaning friend or relative. Maybe it was a hand-me-down, or maybe it was new, but it was offered with good if misguided intentions. Although you accepted the offering graciously, you thought I wouldn’t wear this if you paid me or I look terrible in this color or That style went out a decade ago or That looks like something my grandmother would wear. But what if you received all your clothes that way? Abilene in “The Help” had a sack full of clothes that were given to her by her employer. That sack sat on her kitchen floor throughout the story, reminding me of the arrogance that assumed the maid would be grateful to receive a bunch of used “white lady clothes.” My grandmother supported herself in her later years by caring for wealthy women and their invalid mothers. She once complained about the dresses her employer insisted on giving her.
“They’re nice clothes, but they’re all butt sprung.”
I also have a friend who was going through a very hard time several years ago. She talked about how grateful she was for the generosity of her friends.
“They’ve given me so many clothes, but I can’t wear a lot of them. Some things are very nice, but they just don’t fit, and other things are pretty worn or stained. Some things work fine, but I really look forward to the day when I can choose my own clothes again.”
Lack of food and clothes are symptoms of a flawed system, and many of us work to change that system, but do we really get to know the people we’re trying to help? Going back to “The Help,” Skeeter risked a lot to write a book she hoped would bring about change, but after months of working closely with Abilene, she didn’t know one of the basic things she wanted, some books from the “white” library. And the civil rights activists staged sit-ins at Woolworth counters and demonstrated for voting rights, but they didn’t know what was important to Abilene’s friend Minny.
“But truth is, I don’t care that much about voting. I don’t care about eating at a counter with white people. What I care about is, if in ten years, a white lady will call my girls dirty and accuse them of stealing the silver.”
It never occurred to her that her daughters would have a choice to be anything but a maid, but she did dream they would one day be treated with the dignity and respect they worked so hard to earn.
The NAACP raised the issue of choice in “Blind Side.” They were concerned that Michael had been the victim of a huge plot, not to give him a better life with more choices but to coerce him into playing football for Old Miss. Leigh Anne had given Michael choices: he wanted to be called Michael instead of Big Mike, he wanted to wear rugby shirts even if they made him look like a giant bumblebee, he wanted to stay with the Touhys because he had no place else he wanted to be. But the accusations of the NAACP made Leigh Anne realize she might have been too pushy and ignored his wishes. As they sat on the curb outside a Laundromat, she asked.
“Do you even want to play football?”
He grinned at her and said, “I’m pretty good at it.”
When he returned later to complete his interview with the NAACP, he said to the rep, “You never asked me why I wanted to go to Old Miss.”
It seems that even the organizations whose purpose it is to broaden the choices of their constituents can be guilty of the arrogance of charity, of assuming they know what the disadvantaged want and need. Until we learn to sit down together and listen to each other before we jump into action, I think we’ll all continue to be at a disadvantage.