Tuesday, March 29, 2016

From the back of the room

published October 19, 2015

There’s a short animation from Buzzfeed currently making the rounds of social media. The video sums up the ideas of privilege and social mobility. In just a few minutes, it is able to make an analogy for privilege, for the attitudes of those with and without privilege, and what is asked of those who were fortunate enough to have been born with it.
The comparison is simple. Imagine a room full of students, seated in different rows. A recycling bin is placed at the front of the room. The students are asked to crumple a piece of paper and then throw them into the bin. 
The students at the front naturally have a better chance of shooting their crumpled paper into the bin, even as some still do not make it. 
By contrast, the students at the back of the room have difficulty shooting their papers, although there are a few who make it. Those at the back naturally complain that the set-up is unfair, because the people at the front are closer to the bin. 
Those at the front, however, are oblivious of their advantage, or of the unfairness of what is happening. All they can see is the distance between their chairs and the recycling bin— nothing else. 
* * *
One is either born with plenty of opportunities —or without. It’s a random accident of birth. We do not choose a family we are born to. 
For example, I can be born as a scion of political or business family. Then, I would have a good life even before I get out of my mother’s womb. I would get fed the best baby food and have access to the best pediatric care. I would be able to attend the best school, and be chauffeured going there and back. My friends would be the equally privileged children of my parents’ friends. I would be able to develop an extra-curricular activity like a sport or a musical instrument, and spend my summer vacations in various places in the Philippines, even abroad. I could attend any university I wanted, wherever it was, and however much it cost. Actually, I would not have to worry about “finding my place in the world”—a career would most likely be imposed on me. I would be the next mayor of the town or the next CEO of the family firm.
A few of my friends or siblings would fall by the wayside, getting hooked on drugs, but most of my friends and contemporaries would be as “made” as I am.   
Then again, with equal likelihood, I could be born as the ninth child of slum dwellers, scavengers for whom every day is a struggle. Early on, I could be roaming the streets for whatever I can get. If, by sheer luck, I manage to consistently attend the public school near my house, even with an empty stomach and even I have no money for a jeepney ride, I could perhaps  snag a scholarship at a university. There it would be another battle, as would be the days I begin finding a job and eventually building a career. I would be aware that I am the exception rather than the rule among my friends and siblings.
Or, through no fault or virtue of my own, I could be born somewhere in between. Perhaps my parents, academics or journalists or government employees, would be renting an apartment and trying everything within their means to send me to school. They would remind me constantly about how important education is because it is the ticket to a better life. And of course I would do better, perhaps get a scholarship or an overseas training and then come back here to land a solid job—all because of my grit and hard work. I would think, yes, my parents were right, after all. And I would bombard my children with the same life lessons. 
* * *
Many of us decry the unfair advantages of the elite in this country over the greater bulk to whom daily survival is the norm. It is easy to resort to blame. Blame the poor, for being lazy. Blame the government for not being able to provide opportunities for upward mobility. Blame ourselves for voting into office, if not the same people, then the same families, or the same kind of politicians who believe occupying posts is their birthright. 
But blaming is not going to get us anywhere. Those of us who were fortunate enough to have thrown our crumpled pieces of paper into the bin, however far we were from it to begin with, should not stop there. Let us enjoy the fruits of our hard work—it’s always a good feeling to look back at how far we have come through our own efforts—but let us also ensure that more people come closer to the bin and are given a fair chance to cast their lot.
In an ideal world, there are no first rows and fourth rows, and everybody shoots from the same distance. Since this world is just that—ideal—many things remain to be done. And we don’t all have to be grandstanding megalomaniacs make sure we get closer to the dream. 
adellechua@gmail.com 

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