I wasn’t raised to give money to people on the streets. I have many memories of being rushed past homeless people by my mother and father while growing up, them ignoring the women and men asking for money, as I have grown to do now that I am older. My father is particularly fond of telling, and retelling, a story of him being cursed out by a homeless man for not giving him enough money.
Last night I left a bar with friends, planning on walking home as they hailed a taxi to go to a different set of bars in Lima. While walking, we passed a little girl. She was maybe 10 years old, and was wandering around seemingly alone at one in the morning asking for money. Everyone in our group either ignored her or shooed her away. I almost did the same, falling back on the usual patterns that I have grown up with. And then I remembered a similar experience that I had in Costa Rica: I was sitting at a cafe with a friend when we were approached by two little girls selling candies. I was uncomfortable and was inclined to say no. But my friend immediately asked them if they were hungry and, in the 30 minutes that followed, we walked with the girls to a Subway and she bought them sandwiches. My friend’s actions were so kind and so simple, I promised myself in that moment that I would do the same if I were ever approached by a child asking for money. Flash forward to last night.
I asked the little girl if she was hungry, and was about to walk into Burger King with her when I saw that none of my friends had noticed that I had hung back and were all walking away. I called out to one of my friends who turned around and saw I was with the little girl. A look of…fear? discomfort? flashed across her face, and in it I could see the memory of the talk we were given at the beginning of our abroad program warning us about panhandlers and potential theft. I asked the little girl to wait as I talked to my friend. We were both getting left behind by the group and, in that moment, I panicked. I turned around to the little girl and told her I had to go and gave her 5 soles. Enough for a small order, perhaps. The equivalent of about $1.50. As we walked away I looked back and saw the little girl walk up to a woman with a cart full of chips and cookies and buy some snacks for herself. Of course she had wanted food. She was only a child. What else had I expected?
I realized later that I had spent more on my frozen lemonade at the bar than I had given to that little girl. There is such a cultural narrative, that I have internalized and perpetuated through my actions last night and in other instances, that beggars are somehow “bad” people. People to be avoided and ignored. They are “bad” perhaps because they are poor, or because they chose to beg, or because they are begging, or because they are putting you in an awkward situation, or because of how they are dressed, or because of their possible mental health problems, or perhaps (most likely) a combination of all of the above. We as a global society ignore and minimize economically struggling and/or homeless people because of…what? Fear? Shame? Guilt? Some misplaced, paternalistic combination thereof that creates the response: “You shouldn’t be out here begging on the streets, and if you’re in this position then it’s probably your fault.”
As we walked away, my friend reassured me. “You did a really good thing” she cooed, her eyebrows drawn together in sympathy. Words that we as the wealthy, we as the gringos, we as the whites, use to assuage our guilt. Of course the little girl had just wanted food. Why else would she be on the street at one in the morning when she should have been safe and asleep in bed with her family? Replaying that interaction in my head this morning I think of how vulnerable she was to so many different forms of abuse, and of how I should have asked her where her parents were, and of how I should have said goodbye to my friends, sat down with her, and bought her a meal.
Perhaps this post is emerging out of my own personal Western-Savior complex, or perhaps it’s coming out equal parts guilt and equal parts worry for the little girl. Either way, I as an individual need to do better, not only through challenging my own actions and mentalities but also by challenging that of those around me. How is it possible that in a group of five Americans and two Peruvians – all of whom had spent at least 7-30 soles on drinks only minutes before – every single one of us were prepared to ignore that little girl?
In this blog, and in my life, I speak frequently about racism and color politics, but I need to start devoting more time to class-ism. My actions last night were classist, and sprung out of a place of fear and an inclination to ignore when faced with that which was “other” to me. I am brown, yes, but I am also upper-middle class. I have the resources to go out to eat, to travel, and I certainly had the resources to buy that girl a meal last night.
P.S. In this post I have made myself and my guilt the center of attention in a situation that really was not about me. I apologize in advance.
This post originally appeared on the Brown Girl blog.