I set my alarm to wake me up to catchy music, so what better than Hamilton, the musical? This morning I heard the scene where Angelica, the elder sister, has to decide in an instant whether she will follow her love, Alexander, or make way for her younger sister, Eliza, to be courted by Alexander Hamilton. In the song, she sings, “I realize three fundamental truths at the exact same time.”
That rings a bell, right? (The liberty bell!) Thomas Jefferson’s famous writing that man has three fundamental rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
But for Angelica, she is not a man. So her fundamental truths are different than those that Jefferson spoke of. For her, the three fundamental truths of being a woman in 1780, were: 1. Her goal in life was to marry well; 2.) Her love for her sister meant they could not both marry for love; and 3.) Alexander is penniless and that may be why he is willing to marry one of the wealthy sisters. So instead of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we see that women’s fundamental truths were pursuit of a husband, submission, and a life with very few real choices. Even in this picture, you can see that the man is central, and that is how life worked then (and often, now).
This week I have been reading a book called Body Respect, which is currently blowing my mind. It is about the Health At Every Size movement, which believes that science and culture are severely biased against people who are fat. The book, which is available from Kindle and other sources, talks about the ways that privilege is given to thin people. So for a fat person, three fundamental truths become: life – shame for body; liberty – shame for choices; and the pursuit of happiness – which in our culture centers around thinness (check out any magazine cover and advertisements!). The example is given of two people who both go to the doctor for knee pain; the thin person is given anti-inflammatories and physical therapy, while the fat person is told, “your knee hurts because of your weight; just lose some weight and then we can talk.” But how to lose weight when injured and in chronic pain? That’s impossible! So the fat person gets shame and NO medical care, while the thin person’s needs are met. That is just one example of privilege, of how three fundamental truths are different based on how a person looks.
(Let me also say, I have fat friends who have run half-marathons and thin friends who eat poorly and never exercise – but the fit fat people are still shamed and the thin person glorified. Shame is so powerful, and creates so many more problems… I highly recommend that everyone read Body Respect, as it blows up a lot of myths about fitness and fatness. To back it up, there are also studies done of people after being on The Biggest Loser, and how even with diet and exercise, their weight over time returns to a set point. The science is staggering – but mainline media ignores it, in the same way we ignored the dangers of nicotine. I have old Life magazines with articles by doctors saying that cigarettes are absolutely not dangerous and are good for you. This stuff is real.)
This led me to reflecting on how my white privilege is real, both here in Asia, where every single moisturizing cream claims to “whiten skin” (because pale is better … why?), and of course in the USA as moms of black sons speak about the fundamental truths that they live with, such as having to teach little boys what to do when stopped by a police officer, so that their kid doesn’t end up dead. What are the fundamental lessons we teach our kids, and how are they based on privilege?
And personally, we are waiting on visas that may or may not come. We are immigrants here, and immigrants in any country these days are unwanted. The fundamental truth of “follow the rules and it will work out” is simply NOT true for immigrants. Systems are complicated and rules constantly change, and the thought that at any point we could be told that we have 7 days to pack and move out is a reality. We are doing our very best to follow the rules that we have been given; but faithfulness is not always rewarded – this is a fundamental truth of the immigrant experience, which those who hold citizenship (privilege) can often ignore.
The musical Hamilton focuses on a fundamental truth that “you have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” As all nations struggle with their narrative, it does us well to examine the assumptions that divide us, and how we can listen to others to hear what truths liberate or oppress them. Here’s to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all people, including women, the disabled, people of color, people excluded because of their sexuality, fat people, immigrants, and so many Others – as the United States Pledge of Allegiance says, “with liberty and justice for all.”
(For lyrics, see http://genius.com/Lin-manuel-miranda-satisfied-lyrics)