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Goeun Park: I have a lot to give, so I should, will give

“Do you have change, ma’am?”

 “Yeah, sure.” I dug into my wallet and pulled out a fistful of change. A few rusty dimes, mostly pennies. It couldn’t have been more than a dollar. I quickly deposited my unappreciated coins into the man’s calloused palms and walked away. Our hands never touched.

The whole interaction took less than 10 seconds, but I keep coming back to that moment. I can’t help it; it’s in my nature to mull over the past. Maybe I should have given him more money. Maybe I shouldn’t have given him any.

There’s a fairly sound argument against giving money to beggars. Statistically, they are more likely to be drug and alcohol abusers, and more likely to spend their money immediately instead of saving it. It is generally encouraged to donate to a shelter or a food agency rather than directly to a stranger in need.

The facts had crossed my mind. I thought about ignoring him, or pretending I forgot my wallet, or even asking why he wanted my measly change. In the end, I couldn’t do any of that. For one, there was just something really depressing about a middle-aged man in scruffy shoes addressing me as “ma’am”.

In retrospect, I didn’t stop out of compassion, but out of guilt. I felt guilty that I had so much when this man seemed like he had so little.

Even as the stereotypical broke college student, I am incredibly privileged. I’m on track to graduate from a college with one of the largest endowments per student in the country. I’m on track to graduate college, period. As of 2010, less than 7 percent of the world’s population had a college degree.

I am socially and economically privileged, and I haven’t done anything to deserve it.

At my school, we talk a lot about privilege. White privilege, western privilege, male privilege, socioeconomic privilege — the list goes on.

Some of you may be wondering, what is privilege? Good question!

Privilege is a social attitude that benefits certain individuals or groups of people. White privilege benefits white people, western privilege benefits westerners, male privilege benefits men, and etcetera. Privilege is all about including certain people and excluding others.

I’ll illustrate a tame example of white privilege — my friend who was born in Ukraine doesn’t have to explain her heritage when she tells people she’s from Portland. Meanwhile, I’m often asked where I’m “really” from when I say I’m from Minnesota. Because I’m not white, people tend to assume that I’m not from the United States. White privilege favors my white, Ukrainian-born friend by accepting her as an insider while it alienates me as a non-white outsider.

Likewise, I have the advantages of socioeconomic privilege. I live in the United States (I could really just stop here). I am educated. I have access to drinking water, food, shelter, health care, and credit. I would be surprised if I wasn’t in the world’s top 1 percent.

Living with privilege means you aren’t aware of having it. The memory of that beggar sticks with me because for a moment, it jolted me out of my privileged bubble. It’s uncomfortable to observe a situation with glaring inequality, and it’s even more uncomfortable to see yourself as the one benefiting from the injustice.

But we need to see it. I needed to see it, not to simply remind myself how lucky I was, but to commit to closing that line of privilege, that gap between my fingers and the beggar’s palm.

I’ve thought about all this for days, and I’ve come up with an embarrassingly simple answer. A mantra, if you will. It goes like this: I have a lot to give, so I should give. I have a lot to give, so I will give.