The Privilege of a Simple Life

by Kate Parker   |   June 10, 2020

Kate Parker River

**This article is about the idea of simplifying one’s life in order to recognize the injustices, tensions, and complexities that surround us everyday. But before diving in, I want to acknowledge that this quest for “simplicity,” which is at its core a sort of commitment to being conscious of injustice, starts from a vantage point of incredible privilege. For white, privileged individuals, the movement toward fully comprehending injustice and systemic racism is a lifelong journey. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), on the other hand, are so aware of injustice that their very bodies are molded and weighed down by it on a daily basis. 

Admittedly, I am hesitant to write anything at all on race during this time, because for white people like me, it is a time for profound and prolonged listening and learning. However, the aim of this short piece is encouraging white people like me to slow down and simplify their values so that they can listen and learn. So, in this instance, I’ll keep my pen to paper.

Despite our incredibly turbulent times, I think it’s fair to say that the global pandemic has forced a degree of simplicity into many of our lives. For some, this is a welcome change. The surge of "at-home" time for more of us has generated a more simplified kind of human industry: people are baking bread for the first time, starting gardens, taking long hikes, reading more books, and buying food from local farms. The other day, a woman confessed to me how relieved she was that she no longer had to drive long hours or coordinate carpools for her children’s after-school activities. “It’s the first time we’ve all been able to regularly sit down together as a family at the dinner table!” 

We are learning how fruitful a minimalist lifestyle can be, and I think this change of pace could inspire real change. I am so happy, for example, to see people buying more food from small, local farms and restaurants, and it’s wonderful that many of us get to spend more time with family. The pandemic has pared down our lives, and frankly, I love it so much that I hope this change continues into the future. 

Simplicity, For Whom?

We must recognize, however, that not everybody gets to simplify their lives during this time. Not everyone gets to reconsider how to educate themselves, where to shop, what to eat, and where to walk. Statistic after statistic has shown that white, specifically privileged, people are more likely to be able to work from home than BIPOC. The Economic Policy Institute recognizes that Black and Hispanic workers are less able to work from home due in part to the racial wage gap: more people of color work low-paying blue-collar jobs that 1) do not offer the opportunity to telework, and 2) do not pay enough to allow their workers to take time off from their jobs. We should be cognizant of the fact that, for many people of color, the routines of daily life have not changed. 

Not everyone has been able to enjoy a pared down, simplified life. For those of us who have relished this change of pace and would like to continue it into their post-pandemic lives, it’s important to recognize that simplicity still comes with social responsibility. The trend toward minimalism and simplicity is a powerful antidote to our rampant and destructive consumerist culture, but unless we are careful, our new, simplified lives will not result in real, lasting change. If we fail to institute this change in an inclusive and socially conscious way, the “simple life” may, after all, just be a temporarily amusing and excessively privileged anecdote to distract ourselves from the present moment. 

"If we fail to institute this change in an inclusive and socially conscious way, the 'simple life' may, after all, just be a temporarily amusing and excessively privileged anecdote to distract ourselves from the present moment."

The impetus to write this article came to me as I walked through forest and field to a spot on the Mechums River where I like to swim (naked). I had the day off from work, and after sleeping in I had spent most of my day setting up my garden beds. I read a book. I even took a nap. When I woke up, I read the news and learned about George Floyd’s death. Then I opened my Instagram account, and after endlessly scrolling I was awash in the Internet’s ocean of outrage and anger. Shocked and upset, I put on my boots and decided to take a long walk to the river. 

Once at the river, I had the frightful urge to cast my social conscience downstream. Why, with the setting sun and miles of greenery behind me, did it have to matter to me? I wanted to be responsible only for my own, bushwhacked path, and to check myself only for ticks. The lonely expanse looked like simplicity to me, and I wanted to give into the feeling that the world is so much more than my soft, white, bug-bitten, blister-pink body and mind could ever be asked to answer for. I started to think that a simple life would give me the option to forget... that it would absolve me of my own complicit racism and the ways in which I benefit, as a white person, from systemic inequality.

But this isn’t a simplified life—it’s just a whitewashed one. The effort to lead a simpler life cannot be tainted with an air of isolation and escapism. 

"The effort to lead a simpler life cannot be tainted with an air of isolation and escapism."

Despite what we might choose to believe, each of us is, in reality, inextricably bound by a web of connection. We are all moving together and breathing with one another. While recognizing this fundamental truth, white people also need to recognize that the systems that benefit them are literally suffocating people of color. 

When we lie down next to the ones we love for long enough, our heartbeats sync together. The beauty of a simple life cannot be seen beyond the fray; it is felt hand-in-hand. Let us use this change of pace to open our ears and eyes to pain and injustice. Let us use our free time to lean in and synchronize our hearts together, supporting one another along the arc of justice. Let us understand simplicity as a sort of disillusionment from the image of innocence and isolation that privilege likes to paint so that we can ask ourselves the more important questions like “Who do we cut our bread with?” and “Who do we invite into our gardens?”

If you are white and privileged like me, and in the future want to live a de-materialized life of relative simplicity, I strongly caution against the tendency to confuse isolation with simplicity. We should simplify our lives so that we might better tend to the injustices that fracture our world. We must be able to walk out into our new gardens with our homemade bread and recognize that we are still responsible for the racism and oppression forged in the still-hot crucible of Euro-American history. We must also continue to recognize that we are responsible for dismantling this crucible, even if it demands singed-hands and sacrifice. 

"We should simplify our lives so that we might better tend to the injustices that fracture our world."

Elie Wiesel writes, “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Similarly, Desmond Tutu writes, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” The simple life, in the first place, is supposed to counteract the oppressive forces of commodification and hyper-capitalism. It cannot, then, turn a blind eye to the manner in which these forces oppress people of color. 

If you choose to lead a simple life, then, choose action—not neutrality. We clear away the mental and material clutter in order to be more-just thinkers, artists, activists, and neighbors. We build gardens not for ignorance, but rather for invitation. As the pace of life changes, remember to listen. Read more books written by people of color, eat out at black-owned restaurants, and support food justice initiatives that re-route produce from local farms to underserved members of your community. 

Most importantly, go out and VOTE!  For the simple life demands action—socially conscious action. Only then can a simple life be truly meaningful.

Kate Parker grew up in Round Hill, Virginia, and spent most of her childhood working in the dirt or romping through fields and riversides with friends. She has spent many of her summers farming with Potomac Vegetable Farms, and she likes to paint portraits of friends and write music whenever she can. She is currently finishing up school at the University of Virginia and hopes to use her degree in Political Philosophy, Policy, and Law to advocate for rural communities and sustainable farming practices.