While it was released in early October, the video “First World Anthem,” created by the nonprofit organization Gift of Water, has only recently started going viral. The video shows children and adults wearing slightly tattered clothes while standing in front of destroyed homes and desolate fields, reading phrases such as “I hate when my phone charger won’t reach my bed” and “I hate when my mint gum makes my ice water taste too cold.” Meant to be a parody of the already ironic “First world problems” meme, the video highlights one issues with such charitable intentions: the people they are made to help are considered as a mass of poverty and put on display without being considered as individuals with real lives.
Reactions to this video have varied. Most people find that they don’t quite understand the point and others just think it’s funny. I find myself in the minority of people who haven’t quite made up their minds as to their reaction but can describe it quite eloquently as “a weird feeling.”
The question is why. While I acknowledge that the idea of using a meme to generate support for an important cause is a great marketing strategy, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the experience of “being put on display” that I faced in my final year of high school.
Growing up, I had always felt out of place at school. During my public school years I didn’t quite fit into the African-American mold because not only was I not born here but my family did not possess the history that formed the black American identity.
My move to private school during the seventh grade only exacerbated this alienating feeling. Suddenly, I was thrown into a vanilla world of wealth where my African heritage—earlier ignored—became my epithet. The first two years were filled with questions ranging from “What tribe are you from?” and “Did you live in a hut?” While no one asked these questions out of malice, I could not help but feel judged by my fellow classmates.
These feelings remained at a low level until my senior year in high school. Our school has a “community day” every year to build student awareness about the local and global community around them. Each year the school chooses a different theme that ranges from general topics such as global warming and environmental protection to specific ones like “The Bronx.”
While my school was considered to be in the Bronx, its location within the peaceful, suburban area known as Riverdale made it seem like an oasis. On top of the hill, there was no sign of the unemployment, poverty and violence that plague some (though not all) of the Bronx. Most of the students, who commuted from Manhattan everyday, had never ventured beyond the black iron gates of our school, except to grab a quick bite at the sandwich shop down the road. So, in honor of this unawareness, my school dedicated the 2012 Community Day to learning about the Bronx.
In theory, it was a good idea. The plan was for students to have an assembly in the morning discussing a brief history of the Bronx followed by various field trips to different neighborhoods in the Bronx. However, these tours did not just include classic sites such as the Bronx Zoo, the Botanical Garden, and Yankee Stadium but also included residential neighborhoods where a few (think four) students lived. This was where the problem arose.
We were on the bus when the chaperones announced our destination.
“This afternoon we will have the great opportunity of seeing Parkchester,” he said to the students on the bus. I froze and felt a rush of heat travel to my cheeks—Parkchester was my neighborhood, my home. By the time we had gotten off the bus and stepped into the crisp fall air, I had already come up with dozens of way this “tour” could ruin my life.
We started with my building; the graying teacher leading the tour began spewing facts about the neighborhood. Though he had grown up here as a child during the sixties, the demographic of the neighborhood had changed drastically since then.
“Parkchester, once a primarily Jewish neighborhood, is now mostly African-American and Hispanic due to the white flight of the sixties,” he started.
All I could do while the teacher described my neighborhood and the surrounding area was think how inaccurate it was. It was surreal listening to someone describe my home as if it were just a series of facts. Every time a statistic or generalization came out of his mouth, I had to suppress the urge to defend my home.
I looked around at my classmates, wondering if their complete lack of interest was more painful than the fact that my neighborhood was being characterized in a few sentences. While the general discomfort lingered, it wasn’t until toward the end of the tour that I became really uncomfortable.
“One of the people in our group actually lives in Parkchester,” the teacher said. Everyone turned to look at me as I let out a slight cough. “Would you care to share some things about your neighborhood?” he asked.
Being unable to say no, I nodded my head slowly and tried to think of something coherent to say.
Yes, there were many people living below the poverty line in the surrounding area, but there were also plenty of middle class families.
Yes, the neighborhood was full of mostly minority families but there was a strong sense of community here. Throughout the year there were events such as musical festivals, talent shows and cultural showcases that connected members of the community. Everyone made an effort not to only know their neighbors but to know the other tenants in the building and the staff.
It was as if it didn’t matter that I had grown up with the same people for most of my life, that we spent summers jumping in the park sprinklers and running across the fields.
It didn’t matter that my parents knew all the grocers and bodega owners. That the guy who owned the record store lived in my building and had two kids that I would sometimes babysit.
No, in the eyes of the students and the teachers on that trip, my neighborhood didn’t have an identity.
While all these thoughts raced through my head, I did not have the courage to say any of them. Instead I mumbled something about how I enjoyed growing up in such a great residential neighborhood. I could not have sounded more like a cheesy brochure if I had tried.
It is with this experience in mind that I fail to laugh or find humor in the Gift of Water campaign video. To me, those people have an identity that is being ignored. The countries they are from aren’t just composed of just villages and huts. These are people that, despite their troubles, had families, communities, friends and a culture and it doesn’t seem fair that only one side of their lives is depicted.