Wearing People’s Suffering

Her shining eyes beckoned and spoke of stories untold, her voice wrapped in love as she showed me the embroidered scarves her women had made. Opening the book she carried with her, she showed me their faces and the 100 year old loom they used to turn the stands into fabric. I listened, mesmerized, as Nasreen Sheikh told of how she spent her childhood in a tiny room with other girls, forced to spend their days sewing clothing for the garment fashion industry of the West. Her only bed at night was the clothes she was working on and she would often wonder who would wear these clothes someday.

Nasreen was able to eventually escape. She now spends her days tirelessly working so that other Nepali women and girls do not have to go through what she did. She started Local Women’s Handicrafts in Kathmandu, operating on Fair Trade Principles before she even knew Fair Trade was an thing.

As we talked, she mentioned how she had been to Walmart a few days back because she needed to pick something up for her travels and she lamented because the experience was painful for her. She saw a $3 t-shirt. “How can there be a $3 t-shirt,” she asked? I’ll never forget her response to her own question, “We are wearing people’s suffering!”

This tiny, uneducated woman from Nepal who doesn’t even know her own birthday is by far wiser than most people I run into these days. She inspires me to keep spending myself so that women and children around the world can live in freedom. She reminds me to consume less, and when I must buy, to buy carefully. She proves that women have what it takes to change the world.

Five years ago today, the world watched in horror as Rana Plaza collapsed, trapping and killing more than 1,000 garment factory workers in Savar, Bangladesh. Nasreen’s words are like a gentle scarf around my shoulders today and the words hit home. “We are wearing people’s suffering.”

I sit in that lament and hold it tight. I check the labels on my clothing. Top shirt – made in India. Undershirt – made in Bangladesh. Jeans – made in Jordan. I’m wrapped in a connection to these places.

While fair trade or suffering-free clothing is becoming more and more available, for the most part, here in the West, we wear people’s suffering. Let’s be more aware. Let’s own it and then do what we can to change it. Like Nasreen, let’s replace suffering with dignity.

Prickly Privilege

Two handmade crochet fairy dolls, one black and one white.

If the word Privilege causes you to prickle, especially when combined with the word “white” here are a few things you may want to think about.

This year all three of our boys had spring break during a different week. I only took off work for one of them. I drove 425 miles with my son to see his new baby cousin and to hang out with the bigger cousins.

He had hours of alone time with mom, which he rarely gets.

…several fast food meals, which he rarely gets.

…a trip to the aquarium.

…countless basketball games with his cousin.

…late night TV with his uncle to watch his favorite team play.

His brothers had to fend for themselves over their spring breaks. No special treatment for them.

He realized it was a special.

He was grateful for it.

He did nothing more than his brothers to deserve this trip.

He didn’t rub it in their faces.

This is privilege. If his brothers would have pointed out to him that he had a week of privileges, he probably would have simply agreed with them. He wouldn’t have felt that they were insulting him or that something was wrong with him. He would have owned it.

Here are some ways I see I am privileged:

  • I can set my cruise to 9 miles over the speed limit and not worry too much about being pulled over.
  • I can take my nieces and nephew into a museum on my sister-in-law’s pass and not be asked for id or bag check.
  • I can trace my ancestry back to the shores of other countries.
  • I can walk into the movies or any store with a very large purse and not once am asked to open it for inspection, not once am I followed around.
  • I own 51% of a small business in a country where white women still make less than white men and women of color make even less. See more here.
  • I had an educational opportunity to complete high school in 3 years.
  • I have incredible credit rates and was able to take out a mortgage during a time we had virtually no income.

These are just a few examples of ways I have come to realize I am privileged. I didn’t earn them. I’m not a bad person for having them. I see, though, that the playing ground is not level and many others do not have these same privileges.

Michael Harriot breaks it down as not being an insult nor an accusation but rather a measurable gap. You can read his article here.

I own my privileges. I am very grateful for them. And where possible, I will use my privileges to work towards leveling the playing ground for all.