Tell Me about your First World Problems. No For Real, Tell Me.

I didn’t used to mind the phrase “First World Problems.” I agree, the fact that they’re out of gingerbread donuts is a shallow thing to get upset about. It is, as Urban Dictionary defines the term, “Problems from living in a wealthy, industrialized nation that third worlders would probably roll their eyes at.”

I see what you mean.

I see what you mean.

A poet friend of mine hates the phrase. He finds it hollow and reductive. The more we argue about it, the more he convinces me. “First World Problems” is part of the vocabulary of cynicism. Like “stuff white people like” or hipster racism, the phrase is fueled by the neoliberal armchair activist. It’s a language that owns privilege while disowning personal participation in social change. It’s defensive speech. By calling my frappuchino a “thing white people like,” I preempt the dialogue, so that I can’t be accused of being “racist” because I’ve already admitted my own self-awareness. Or by calling NPR a “thing for white people,” I assume people of color won’t–can’t be–interested in the same things I am. Continue reading

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