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Can we stop saying ‘first world problems’?

Everyone around the world loses jobs, gets heartbroken, burns toast in the morning, and misses the 6am train.

Internet Culture

Published Jan 20, 2015   Updated May 29, 2021, 5:45 pm CDT

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Saying “white people problems” or “first-world problems” seems especially popular among white people in the first world. It’s a strange phenomenon of self-deprecation that I secretly despise.

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I say “secretly” because I try not to make my distaste known. I don’t like being the wet blanket. I’ve been there, done that, and I just end up feeling like a complete tool. Like, I’m not going to tell someone they’re not funny. I’m the kind of person that can’t not answer people who talk to me, even when they’re talking to themselves, because I don’t want to come off as rude and secretly reinvigorate deep and passionate self-loathing.

But when the awkward guy at the Goodwill made a cringe-worthy “first world problems” jab at my $50 bill because he had to call his manager to verify it, I knew I somehow had to make my frustration known. Not at his expense, because I knew he was just trying to be friendly-ish. (Yeah, I know, it was my fault for trying to use a $50 bill at Goodwill. But can you blame a girl for trying to get some change?)

What really got me was when he kept going with his goofy smile and said, “Seriously, nowhere else in the world would you find this much money in one place.” I booked it out of there muttering under my breath, wishing I knew a spell to cause awkward public boners or something equally benign-yet-embarrassing.

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There’s this idea out there that being non-white and non-American is like being an alien. 

There’s this idea out there that being non-white and non-American is like being an alien. It doesn’t help that we actually call undocumented people “aliens,” but I can assure you, out in the world, there’s a brown person in a “third world” country who needs change for a large bill. I bet it happens every day, somewhere in that secret land called “the rest of the planet.”

I know, I’m not being fair. “That guy was lame!” some of you would be quick to point out. Or maybe, “He was just pointing out your privilege, don’t get defensive.”

I am privileged, incredibly privileged, and I’m endlessly grateful for it. When you’ve seen the street corner where your mom used to sell gum as a five-year-old or ponder your father’s high school years in Compton, you know that you’ll never truly know what it means to suffer. I mean, sure, I’ve been through some stuff I’d rather not think about. But these days most of my problems revolve around, “40 degrees?! How can it be this cold in Florida?”

My beef is not with satirizing or jabbing at your own good fortune. Sometimes that’s the only way to deal with how unfair the stratification of resources is.

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Newsflash: People of all racial backgrounds from all over the world deal with heartbreak, finding employment, getting good grades, transportation, mental illness, barfing puppies, and yes, even getting change for a big bill.

But my skin starts to crawl when this attempt at a joke ends up being more of an admission of complacent ignorance. Because it’s not just the guy at the Goodwill. It’s that acquaintance on Facebook whose status reads, “Breakups suck. #firstworldproblems.” Or the cousin who is trolling job listings without much luck and sighs with a smile about his “first-world problems, am I right?”

Newsflash: People of all racial backgrounds from all over the world deal with heartbreak, finding employment, getting good grades, transportation, mental illness, barfing puppies, and yes, even getting change for a big bill.

I know that, for many people, saying “first-world problems” can act as a personal check. Sometimes we get so frustrated or down that we lose sight of the good things we have going for us. I certainly do. I mean, I’ve seen Paul McCartney perform live twice and I still find things to complain about. (Seriously, does it get any better than that?)

But I think it’s important to recognize that some experiences are perfectly reasonable things to be upset about. When things don’t go according to plan, we get negative. Get positive as soon as possible, and appreciate all of your alternative options. But think twice about invalidating your experience, because what you’re going through is probably way more universal than you realize.

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Admittedly, some things people complain about are stupid. Most things I complain about are stupid. I seriously throw tantrums if I can’t stream a cat video I really want to watch. I’m not better than anyone—if anything, I’m basically parading my privilege around by complaining about the phrase “first-world problems.”

And it’s true that getting change for a $50 isn’t like a breakup or finding a job. I wasn’t even remotely upset about the clerk calling the manager or anything. It just got me thinking about all the times I went shopping with my relatives and family friends in that mystical foreign land known as “Mexico.”

I think about how I much fun I had, eating fruit doused in lime and chilé, talking about school, dating, and music while looking at clothes. These are people, just like white Americans. I hate the idea of othering them with rhetoric. They’re not in any other world that can be hierarchically measured through distribution of iPads.

All the people alive today don’t exist in different worlds. Barring the existence of parallel universes, they live in this world.

By the way, my uncle living in a concrete hut with a dozen other people would still be pissed if his iPad broke. He really likes his iPad—tablets are neat. And no, he probably doesn’t use it to access resources to better his position in life or whatever. He plays Angry Birds and takes pictures of things. Poor people can be frivolous, too—they’re allowed.

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All the people alive today don’t exist in different worlds. Barring the existence of parallel universes, they live in this world.

And when I’m not too stuck up my own asshole complaining about how Apple basically makes you buy its newest phone in order to update your operating system (whatever, joke’s on you, Tim Cook, I still have an iPhone 3GS!), I like to think that we have more in common than we don’t.

But if we continue to use language to segregate ourselves from people in less fortunate positions than our own, we may lose the compassion necessary to reach out and bridge the gap, to see what it’s really like to be in someone else’s chanclas.

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As much as I utterly love and adore Sir McCartney, I urge you to not “live and let die.” Instead live and think about how other people live as much as you can.

Photo via b k/Flickr (CC BY-SA 20)

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*First Published: Jan 20, 2015, 12:00 pm CST