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Notes on Change and “First World Problems”

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“And as the COVID-19 crisis that has changed seemingly everything shows, en masse unemployment and distrust of the federal government is now a “first world reality.””

Events are canceled, schools have moved online, and restaurants and malls are closed. And given other efforts to mandate physical distancing—necessitated by the Coronavirus (COVID-19)—people accustomed to regularly going out and seeing others are experiencing what are commonly called “first world problems.” 

First world problems—effectively a cliché in 2020 and commonly applied to vocalized problems with slow smartphone apps, delayed packages or grumpy baristas, for example—acknowledges that not all problems are equal and that, oftentimes, people need to “check their privilege.” 

Complaining about long drive-through lines or canceled concerts is, of course, insignificant and irrelevant. Until it isn’t.

Over the past few months, people have experienced unprecedented amounts of change and uncertainty: FaceTime or Zoom calls in place of face-to-face meetings are aural, visual reminders of our new realities and uncertainties, reminders penetrating our consciousness.

We are experiencing complete, real disruptions to our everyday lives. Unemployment has been skyrocketing. COVID-19 cases continue to increase. Uncertainty is rampant. And on top of COVID-19, racial inequalities and lynchings have caught the nation’s attention.

The powerful in the United States like to promote this country as a superior place with only inconsequential first world problems, compared to the other 195 countries.

People need time and space to decompress. Change is real and upsetting. It is different for each person. Voicing feelings of discontent, even about the trivial, is healthy. Acknowledging mental health is part of the process. First world problems can no longer be quickly dismissed. 

In my case, I thrive on having in-person conversations with my students. Our conversations typically focus on discussing what black scholar bell hooks (she spells her name with all small letters) calls the Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist (Heteronormative Ableist Theistic) Patriarchy, with the words in parenthesis being ones we have added. This has not been possible since early March. I am glad—privileged, yes—that this is my first world problem, but I still grieve the routines and activism that are no longer possible and the people I cannot see for the foreseeable future. And because of preexisting health conditions, I am under even stricter orders to stay at home. 

Everyone is mourning their own first world problem, even if it is seemingly just not being able to go inside a favorite restaurant. 

All of this necessitates acknowledging that first world phraseology perpetuates dated, colonialist rhetoric and brings to mind the more offensive term “third world.” (I’m reminded of a recent Facebook comment: “I don’t live in a third world country! I’m not going to wear a mask!”) 

The powerful in the United States like to promote this country as a superior place with only inconsequential first world problems, compared to the other 195 countries. Yet they do this knowing full well that the United States has long been deluged with the overworked, the dying, the starving, and with the echoes of “I can’t breathe.” And as the COVID-19 crisis that has changed seemingly everything shows, en masse unemployment and distrust of the federal government is now a “first world reality.”.

Andrew Joseph Pegoda (@AJP_PhD) holds a Ph.D. in History and teaches women’s, gender, and sexuality studies; religious studies; and English at the University of Houston. Previous articles can be found in The Conversation, History News Network, The Houston Chronicle, Time, and The Washington Post, among others.  

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