I have a comfortable existence. I’m white, educated, have a nice roof over my head, always have more than enough food to eat, and am wealthy enough to travel on occasion.
Last November I went to visit my son for the first time in his new home city of Seattle. He was fortunate to land a job there shortly before graduating from college last June. I was accompanied on the trip by my husband and adult daughter. We stayed in Seattle for four days at a luxurious waterfront hotel within walking distance of my son’s apartment. Our hotel room had a refrigerator, so like every good mom I know would do, I made a “Target run” and stocked it with food in case my children should experience the pangs of hunger while in our hotel room during our visit.
My daughter ended up sleeping at my son’s apartment the whole time and the four of us ended up eating out or ordering pizza for every meal during our visit, so barely a dent was made in the groceries I had purchased. At the end of our stay, when we packed up I was faced with the dilemma of figuring out what to do with an entire bag of food that I couldn’t carry on the flight home.
Thanks to my grandmothers who grew up during the Great Depression, I’ve always experienced extreme guilt when I’ve thrown food away. As we prepared to check out of our hotel, I announced to my husband and daughter that we would find a homeless person to give our food to. During our exploration of the city, it was clear that Seattle had plenty of people living on the streets who were in need of some assistance. My plan was to quickly hand the bag of groceries out the car window to someone in need standing on a street corner, then quickly head to the rental center to return our car, catch a shuttle to the airport, and fly home.
We were running a little behind schedule, but I was confident as we left the parking garage that we would soon be returning our car and checking in at the airport. My husband slowly drove down the street so that I could give the bag of groceries to the first person holding up a sign saying: “Anything Helps.” We drove down the first block and encountered nobody in need. At first I thought I saw a needy candidate, but then decided he was probably just a “creatively dressed” hipster as he got up from his bench and strolled down the sidewalk. There was no one who was advertising their hunger on the second block, or the third, the fourth, or the fifth block . . . I instructed my husband to drive to the area under the overpass where we had encountered several homeless people huddling during that weekend’s rain. There was nobody to be found. The people, their few belongings, and their cardboard beds had gone elsewhere. The sun was shining brightly, making for an unusually warm November morning and I guessed the homeless and the hungry probably migrated to the parks for a much needed dose of vitamin D. The parks were well out of our way and we were in a hurry to catch our flight, so I said, “Where are the homeless people when I need them?” As quickly as that rolled off my tongue, I wished I could take it back. I realized how horrible and utterly privileged that made me sound.
We continued slowly cruising along Seattle’s waterfront as my husband and daughter and I discussed how we could go about efficiently getting our food to someone in need. I nominated my twenty-something daughter to ask the next resident we saw where we could deliver our food to someone in need of it. My husband grudgingly seconded the motion – despite his desire that she still not talk to strangers – when I pointed out that she, as a resident of Minneapolis and as a social activist, had far more experience than either of us in communicating about neediness. I felt pretty ridiculous discussing the best way to get my juice, milk, yogurt, fruit, and individual servings of cereal to someone in need of it in a timely manner. I wanted to just open my car door, plop the bag on the ground, and let fate have its way with my groceries, so that I could get to the airport.
As I looked for a spot to dispose of my food, we saw a guy sitting on a back step of a run-down building facing the waterfront. He had his backpack next to him and was busy looking at his iPhone. He looked as if he was around the same age as my children, wearing casual clothes similar to what they might wear. We quickly pulled up in front of him. My daughter got out of our car with the groceries and approached the guy. My husband’s hand was ready to reach for the door handle in case he tried to harm our little girl. I crossed my fingers that we would soon be rid of the burdensome bag of food.
My daughter had to motion to get the guy’s attention, because he had his earbuds in. He responded respectfully and she let him know that we bought too many groceries that we couldn’t take with us, and we were wondering if he knew how we could get it to someone who might like to have the food. The guy responded that he was homeless. My daughter handed him the bag of food and he expressed his appreciation.
I glanced at the young man as my daughter got in the car. The smile on his face conveyed such deep gratitude, as if he had just been visited by an angel. His expression brought tears to my eyes – and humility to my comfortable heart.
On the three hour flight home, I had plenty of time to think about my encounter with the homeless guy who looked like he could be one of my own children. I wondered what it was that caused him to respond to our bag of groceries with such deep gratitude. Was he so affected by overwhelming student loans and a bad job market that he couldn’t afford one of Seattle’s high-rent apartments? Had he gotten the message that bad choices landed him in his situation and he wasn’t deserving of help? Was he raised to not ask for handouts? Was he afraid of dying of starvation on the street? Did he exhaust all possible resources for food and resort to asking God to send an angel with a Target bag filled with something to eat?
I also thought at length about my attitude in general toward people in need. Ever since I was a child, I've helped in any way I could when I encountered someone who needed something. But I never went out of my way to find people who needed assistance. Until that moment on Seattle’s waterfront, I felt it was completely acceptable that my approach to helping society happened when it didn’t inconvenience me or take me outside of my comfort zone. I realized just how comfortably white my approach to volunteering had been. The way I've seen other people approach volunteering also consumed my thoughts. I imagined that if there were A Comfortable White Person’s Guide to Helping Society it might read something like this:
Help only when the church ladies guilt you into it.
Find ways to contribute to society at your convenience. Don’t let volunteering make any demands on your life because there is only one wonderful YOU, and you should take care of you.
Join trendy causes and volunteer groups that help you make friends at the water cooler.
Avoid signing up for time-consuming volunteer situations. If you sacrifice your time to attend to people in need, how will you have enough time to post via social media how much you care about society?
Avoid helping out in places that might threaten your well-being (a.k.a. make you a white target). Your safety is more important than anyone else’s needs.
If you feel compelled to join a volunteer organization because it looks good on your resume, find causes that are popular, so you won’t personally be held accountable to make a significant contribution – let someone else deal with less popular causes that require a greater commitment.
Volunteer where there are great selfie opportunities. i.e.: A photo of a white person standing among a group of black children will generate hundreds of Likes.
Decide for people of color what it is they need to improve their lives, because of course your comfortable mind knows what’s best for everyone – even though you’ve never lived in their skin.
Frequently sharing other people’s posts about civic duty satisfies your obligation to help society.
If you see someone in need, don’t fret about it if you don’t feel like helping; leave it to others who want to attend to that kind of thing.
I am still the comfortable white person I was back in Seattle last November, but I’m now on a journey to find out what American society really needs from me. And I will do everything I possibly can to make people in need of help feel that, instead of waiting for angels to appear, they can trust that citizens around them will find a way to give them what they actually need.