On Choosing Goodness

by Heather Charles, B.A. ’10 + M.A. ’12

I have two siblings serving in our nation’s armed forces. In my case, they both happen to be in the army. They are two radically different people with different personal motivations for why they joined, but ultimately what it came down to was that as working class white kids growing up in a community with an unemployment rate that hovers around 40-50% percent, it was the best option for them to support themselves and their current and future families. My family, like the families of many American families who have been working class for many generations has had a disproportionate number of people who served in the military. No one in my family is particularly keen on our actions abroad, including my late-Great Grandfather who lied about his age and became a Para-trooper in the Pacific Theater during World War Two, because it was best way to ensure that he got to eat. My family lineage on my maternal side is a long line of white folks who were the exception in that like many black share-croppers during the Dust Bowl, they were left out of FDR’s reforms. I have great-great aunts who were sterilized during the Eugenics movement.

Because I studied history, I am well aware and can give many lectures on why I think our foreign policy is misguided at best, and driven my bigotry and hatred at its worse. But because of my family lineage I was unique in the radical circles in being in favor of the return of ROTC. While I do not intend to debate that issue here, my reasons for this illuminate some of the things I do want to talk about. Stanford gets a lot of defense funding. We get a lot of lectures, visits, and influence within the military and state department. We welcome and pat ourselves on the back whenever someone with a lot of power comes to campus. These are the people who make the decisions about our foreign policy. My perspective is this: if we are getting defense funding and it’s ok to have any of leaders in the state department or the military on campus then it should be ok to have the soldiers who bear the brunt of the sacrifice for our country’s continued standing in the world. I am ok with refusing to allow ROTC on campus if everyone promises to give back the state and defense funding they get to use for research, and the acquisition of power. This is never going to happen.

My brother and sister didn’t really have much choice, they weren’t exceptional students like I was and frankly being the kind of kid I am from my background is so extraordinarily rare that it’s not a standard we should be holding anyone to. If Obama, or any other future leader, decides to send in troops, my brother who is in artillery and my sister who is in the medical field, will be the people on the ground carrying out those orders. Whether or not they agree with those orders or not is irrelevant, because they never have and never will have any power or say in them anyway. They will never get to make that choice.

There are a lot of really good reasons why people do the things they do. In fact, I have never met a kid, including the kids I have worked with who had committed serious crimes or did serious drugs, that weren’t rationally responding to the circumstances in front of them. In the face of poverty in America, to say “whatever I am going to work hard in an institution that thinks its fun to otherize me at every hour of the day” is insane. I am insane. Please stop using me as an example for why the system works. The only thing I am comfortable with being used for is to say that people are profoundly resilient. That the human spirit endues. And you may also use me as proof that there are a lot of really bright poor kids getting shafted by the system, if you’d like.

I look at Stanford differently now than when I entered. Age and experience have tempered what was an incredibly angry girl. I have to be honest; there have been points where I have hated most of my peers and where I have been ashamed of having gone to Stanford. When I called my mom, sobbing, she said “I know, but there are jerks everywhere.” The difference, as I explained to her, was that these jerks were going to make decisions that directly made life worse for me as a child. They had the power to crash the world’s economy, to send my brother and sister to die in a desert not of their choosing, to lock me out of a good education. From what I could tell, they were exercising that power rather carelessly and arrogantly. The vast majority of Stanford students aren’t intentionally trying to harm anyone but they go in blind to communities with a sense of entitlement about their right to control those people in those communities and a smug sense of their own self-importance. They are unaware of their privilege. When you point this out to them they get hurt and tell you that you are making them feel bad. If you are in a position of power, you should feel bad. You should feel terrible. I mean enjoy your life, I try to. I count myself in this too. I feel bad about the privilege that I have and I am incredibly conscious of what it means. You should also be incredibly conscious of the power and privilege you have and what that means.

I’m held accountable for my behavior by the example of my siblings and my mom, who most assuredly would school me quite quickly if I ever got to the place where I thought I was entitled and knew better than the working class folk from which I sprang. If you don’t have this, you need to create this for yourself. You have people’s lives in your hands. You have my brother and sister’s actual, physical lives in your hands. You have my little sister’s education in your hands. You have my family’s health care in your hands. These aren’t statistics. These are people. Good, hard-working, kind, generous, loving people, people who love their children and each other just like your family does. Please exercise your power as though it’s your own brother or sister that you are sending in to die. Please exercise your power as if it’s your own little sister who doesn’t get health care. Please exercise your power as if it was you who was zoned out of good public schools and zoned into underfunded and dangerous schools because of your family’s social status. If you fail to do this on your own, I promise you I will be around, sometimes angry, usually kindly, sometimes with humor, sometimes gently, nudging you, prodding you and fighting you every step of the way. We are in this together and I am your accountability. I don’t want to alienate you from good and important causes, and I certainly don’t want to turn people off by being pissed off, but it’s ok to feel bad. You should feel bad. If you don’t you might want to consider the possibility that you are a sociopath. If you lack the ability to empathize with others and get upset about the conditions of people less privileged than you than do me a big favor and stay away from serving others in any capacity. I am sure we can find a use for your talents elsewhere.

I’ve learned that there are really horrifying, but logical reasons why the upper elite of society is now made up of a bunch of crazy folks who are brilliant and incredibly well-educated. There are logical reasons poor kids want to opt-out of school. It makes sense to me when I meet someone who has been through a lot who is kind of edgy or even mean. It doesn’t absolve them, but it makes sense, and it makes it even more beautiful the fact that the vast majority of poor children I have encountered have been incredibly gracious and kind. There really isn’t an excuse for privileged people. Look, if you have to do something criminal to feed yourself or your children, I get that. But if you choose to do something that makes you a lot of money but involves screwing over lots of people when you could have done something else that would have only been slightly less lucrative, I have little to no patience. Particularly because if you are well-educated and you have options (like we all do), that means that you should know better. Listen. Know better. Make the right choice. At least do no harm.


Heather Charles is a Stanford Class of 2010 graduate in history, and a STEP graduate of 2012 in Social Science.  An Annenberg-Woodrow Wilson teaching fellow, she has spent her time working on educational inequality, first as one of the founding members and presidents of FLIP and then as a classroom teacher. Underneath her notoriously obnoxious and intense demeanor is a girl who loves polka dots, kittens, hanging out with children, consuming media and South Park. You can reach her at hcharles2010 at gmail dot com.

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