Upper, Middle, and Lower Class. These are the hierarchical social categories we are boxed into. If I had to slot myself in one of them though, I really wouldn’t fit anywhere, in fact, not too long ago, my big brother called me “a floater.” It might be the weirdest thing I’ve been labelled yet, but it might sum me up pretty neatly too ( although now I’m thinking trying to have me “neatly” anywhere, in any context, is going against my very being, but I must choose my battles). So Mimi Mwiya, Floater. Floating through life, floating in and out of people’s lives, in and out of their hearts. Maybe also floating in and out of classes, both school and social ones.
Anyhow, because I just go about living life, just trying to get by as happily as I possibly can, not paying anything “normal” any mind, I would never have thought I’d ever be in a position where I have to harbour “class guilt.”
Until the year 2015.
My brother turned 40 in February of that year, and I decided to go and spend the month with him. At the time, he was living in Luanda, Angola. Nearly every day of that month, I was cooking for the big bro, keeping his kitchen clean, playing hostess to his guests and such things. At the end of the visit, he decided to “reward” me for all my niceness by upgrading my return ticket home from good old Economy, to Business.
I’d never flown Business Class before, but I’d also never had any bad experiences flying Economy, so I’d never wanted to fly any other way. Mr. S told me about this “surprise” of his and my first instinct had been to ask if he didn’t want to just give me the money for the upgrade instead, but because I listen to all those “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” (or something) stories, and sometimes I like to try things at least once, I said okay.
For Mr. S it was exciting that I was flying Business Class, he was way more excited for me than I was. He took me to the airport, but then had to rush to work. He then called me from work, asked me where I was, I told him I was at the boarding gate waiting area and he told me, “Mimilo, you are flying Business class now, go to the Business Lounge… There are nice comfortable chairs, free WiFi and free breakfast.”
I protested, but he wouldn’t stop pestering until I assured him I was in the Business Lounge, in fact, I had to describe it to him, just so he’d believe me. I went to the lounge, watched all the business-y looking people go about their business-y business and I just held on to my bag, waiting for boarding call. I posted something on Facebook… using my phone’s data, I didn’t see the point in connecting to the free WiFi, when I still had lots of data that I wouldn’t be needing or using once I left Angola.
Boarding call finally came, I boarded… and the first thing I noticed… was how much leg room I had, more leg room than I knew what to do with. I wasn’t happy about that, especially because I was in the last row of the plane’s Business Class, so just behind me, the Economy class seats began, and I could feel the man behind me’s knees hit the back of my seat… That’s how little leg room HE had. All I could think of was how, give him a quarter of the leg room I had, he would have enough, and I would still have more than I needed.
Then the food came, and instead of the little tinfoil boxes we get served in in Economy, there were actual ceramic bowls and plates, real stainless steal cutlery and proper tea cups and actual glasses for beverages instead of the styrofoam kind. Had it not been for that man’s knees in my back, I probably would have been able to enjoy the experience with a simple ‘Hmm, so this is how the other side lives’, but I was quite guilt-ridden.
I landed, naturally almost as soon as I did, Mr. S wanted to know how my “experience” was… I told him to never ever make me go through that again. (These days he threatens me with things like “I’ll buy you a business class ticket”… I must be one of very few people in the world that would work on as a “threat”).
I think a couple of days later I had lunch or tea or something with my friend, Hugh. I told him about my “horrible experience” and he suggested if I had felt so bad about it, I could have offered to exchange seats with the man. And I had my first lesson in Privilege: It’s a fact, it’s not an insult. Recognise that you have it, and if it bothers you… Don’t talk about how much it bothers you, do something about it!
In April 2016, I flew Business Class again… because the airline had some sort of glitch with my booking, Economy was full and they had no choice but to bump me up to Business. The man checking me in probably thought my look of disdain was a flippant and/or pretentious one. Again, had I really been bothered, I could have just found someone in Economy willing to trade seats with me. That I didn’t (mostly because what I really would have preferred is to not be put in the situation in the first place) had me thinking that maybe we like to lament about our privilege just to show how aware and/or conscientious we are, but don’t really want the privilege taken from us, because hello, we benefit from it.
In August 2016, I was going to Luanda, I’d asked someone to make the booking for me and I’d just go make the payment, on the day I went to make the payment, I found out the person making the booking had booked a Business Class ticket, I tried to change it (especially since I was paying for that ticket myself and would have liked to save the extra money), but again, Economy was full, so I paid for the Business class ticket.
This time around though, I was on the same flight with a cousin who was flying Economy, and I swapped tickets with her, but not before I made sure both of us could take advantage of the complimentary breakfast we could get from the Business Lounge. Somewhere in there is a lesson on how if and when we are ready to relinquish our privileges, it is to people close to us. Something can also be said about how I hadn’t exactly completely relinquished my privilege. I spoke to another friend about it, told him about my guilt and he pointed out that travelling by plane was a privilege in itself and it really didn’t matter that we were in different parts of the plane, all of us on the plane could afford to fly.
My first full-time job (complete with medical aid, housing allowance and all that jazz) came as a result of volunteering. Because of that, I’m a really big advocate for volunteer work. Well, I always have been. Before, it was because I believed we are people by the people around us ( Ubuntu and things), I still believe that, but now I also add that sometimes volunteering can lead to some really good job opportunities.
Last week I found myself at a workshop with the Namibian Chapter of the Southern African Alliance on Youth Employment (SAAYE). I listened to the youth make presentations and lament about how they are out of work graduates, how hard it is to find gainful employment in Namibia, and so forth and so forth. I am a university dropout who was able to get a job through volunteering, so my two cents worth to that conversation, as I called Namibian youth (myself especially) lazy, spoiled and with a terrible sense of entitlement, had been from that viewpoint.
Not once did I acknowledge or mention that when I volunteered for Sister Namibia (the organisation that gave me that first full-time job), I was living with my uncle, not paying rent, not buying food, my uncle dropped me off at work every morning and I really only had to worry about lunch and cab fare back home.
All the times I’ve done voluntary work, I’ve had secure accommodation and my basic needs catered for. In fact my decision to volunteer came simply out of a need to keep busy. Not everyone has that fortune. These days, anyone hiring, demands some experience, and volunteering is a good way to garner experience, but with no one paying volunteers, how are they expected to make a living? Because the truth is, no matter how valuable the experience, most people can’t afford to work for free.
Most people do not have big brothers whose houses they can live in while they figure out their next life moves. If anything, most people have people looking up to them, waiting for them to get gainful employment so they can pay bills and take care of households, it’s not something they can choose to do should they want to, it’s something they must do.
That first time I flew Business Class, was the first time I was acknowledging and admitting my privilege, it was the first time I was truly thinking about it and after that it seems I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t stop myself from feeling guilty, but also from asking myself what exactly I have to feel guilty about, because after all, ‘privilege is not an insult, it just is’, no?
Privilege, especially when it’s your own, is easy to overlook, ignore or justify, and if there’s anything I can do well, it’s justify my life. I am constantly having to remind myself of my privilege. No, it’s not a bad thing and I really shouldn’t feel bad about it, but I should acknowledge that I have it, and it puts me at an advantage, enables me to do things that other people can’t do. And yes, there are people more privileged than I am (I use this argument a whole lot). But there are also people who I am more privileged than.
Featured Image: HelloBeautiful.com