Last week Jay and I spent a morning in Savannah, Georgia. There is a well-known supper club in town called Mrs. Wilkes, where the food is set out family style and everyone is seated randomly, encouraging people to get to know the strangers at their table during the course of the meal. Due to the popularity of the restaurant, we had to wait outside in line and decided to take a detailed look at our city map.
Historically Savannah served as one of the hubs for the slave market, and thousands of men, women and children were sold to the highest bidder in Savannah’s harbour 250 years ago. Jay mentioned out loud how sad it was that so much of the city was built on the backs of slaves, who would pick cotton on plantations all over the Southern U.S. while their masters reaped the profits.
We noticed that as he said this, two middle-aged, white women in front of us bristled. They gave each other a look, somewhere between a “oh here we go” and a “isn’t that cute.” Jay wasted no time. “Hi, I’m Jay, it’s nice to meet you.” We all introduced ourselves and started talking about Savannah. We told them about our anti-trafficking work and eventually circled back to the topic of slavery.
“Well, someone had to pick the fields,” one of the women said.
“But don’t you think it’s wrong to enslave another person?” Jay asked.
“You know, you gotta do what you gotta do. You needed to hire help, so that’s that.”
“But it was slavery…they didn’t hire help, they bought human beings,” he countered.
“Well, that’s just how things were.”
Sadly, this wasn’t the first time we’d encountered such a flippant attitude toward slavery. Last year we found ourselves in a conversation with another woman from the South (who still owned a piece of a former plantation she’d inherited from her ancestors), and she adamantly insisted:
“Slavery wasn’t that bad…it’s not like everyone got whipped or raped.”
Later, she referred to herself and her husband as “prime people.” The words of Abraham Lincoln came to mind:
“Whenever I hear any one arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”
On the way down to Savannah the day before, we’d passed by dozens of cotton fields. It was the first time I’d actually seen one for myself. The white clusters of fluff were glowing lazily in the sun, and as I bent down to take a closer look, I was struck by their soft texture and simply beauty. But knowing that generations of slaves had to perform back-breaking work in the heat of the day (and women additionally often had to serve their masters sexually at night), the moment seemed tainted, haunted by the cries of mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers.
At the root of any exploitation is entitlement. It’s the belief that I am a “prime person,” a superior class of citizen, and others are not. It is the assumption that my comfort, financial security, and ambition can come at the cost of another human life. While the entitlement of these women we’ve met in the South was painfully evident, the truth is that all of us harbour these attitudes to some degree in different areas of our lives.
I myself am guilty of having an entitled attitude. I’ve judged people before knowing them, put myself first at the expense of others, and made decisions based on what is best for me and my loved ones instead of considering the common good. I’ve put others down while puffing myself up, allowed fear to hold me back from standing up for what is right, and sometimes assumed that people in difficult circumstances “had it coming.” My hope is that these thoughts would gradually become rare moments instead of default attitudes.
While these thoughts may seem inconsequential, I believe that they can quickly morph into actions that hurt others. In fact, sex trafficking and labour trafficking still thrive in our own communities, and around the world mothers, fathers, and children work in sweatshops, coffee fields or cocoa plantations for little to no pay so that we can buy cheap clothing and tasty treats. It would appear we are not as immune to slavery as we think.
Perhaps it’s time we reel in our entitlement. Here’s some steps we can take:
1. Listen to people’s stories. Instead of making an assumption about someone, learn to ask good questions. Put away your cell phone and other distractions, and let their story in. What is one question you could ask someone this week to get to know their story better?
2. Walk a mile in another’s shoes. I know of a young couple that intentionally moved into a run-down apartment building so they could actively love the people of that community. The wife made it her goal to visit and get to know each family, specifically with the purpose of building connections with kids and their parents so they could come to her if they needed help. Listening to loud fights through the walls and dealing with bed bugs were just part of their reality, allowing them to truly understand some of the difficulties their neighbours faced. What is one way you could put yourself in someone else’s shoes?
3. Watch a movie or read a book. I personally love historical fiction because it allows me to learn about people’s experiences through story. 12 Years a Slave is a must-watch if you want to witness the horror of Antebellum slavery. Whether you want to learn more about homelessness, sex trafficking, poverty, the orphan crisis, war, domestic abuse, or any other issue, I would encourage you to find some books and movies. What is one issue that you want to learn about, and what book or film will you pick up this week to do that?
4. Travel with your eyes open. This could mean going to another country or merely venturing to a different part of your own town. If you go to another country, make sure you get away from all inclusives and cushy, Westernized hotels. Have a meal with a local. Spend the night in a small village. Take local transport. Volunteer. On the home front, sometimes Jay and I will park our car and walk through areas of the city that people usually avoid, just so we can learn a bit more about what life is like outside our bubble. Where is one place you can go this year to experience how others live?
5. Ask yourself the hard questions. In what areas could you be harbouring entitlement?
My hope is that the spirit of slavery, rooted in entitlement, would cease to exist. It starts with us, so let’s take up the challenge!