We stood in the hair care aisle and her eyes were as big as the moon.
“Go ahead, choose one,” I urged her.
She stood still- looking half afraid, half helpless. I put my hand on her shoulder and urged her to choose a shampoo.
I had mistaken bewilderment for humility.
My friend visiting America for the first time whispered with tears in her eyes, “There are so many bottles…and so many choices.”
I was ashamed of my ignorance. She was overwhelmed by the opportunity to choose.
We were standing in the first Walmart she had ever visited. I brought her there to bless her, but in my haste, I didn’t prepare her.
“Americans have so many things,” she said. “But it’s the freedom to choose I would cherish the most.”
Her words felt like a stone around my neck. For the first time, I saw the rows and rows of conditioners, sprays and creams through the eyes of someone being exposed to our first world. There are 20 brands of toothpaste, toilet paper and tissues and the freedom to choose whichever we want.
I’ve taken this experience with me into every country and culture I’ve visited. When I help an artisan group create a fair trade product or choose a color for a fabric, I think of this story. And I try to explain what they are up against. “You see, in America, women have so many choices of earrings and tablecloths and headbands and necklaces. They can choose from an entire room of throw pillows in a hundred different colors. We have a lot of choices and so we have to create something they will buy.” And every time I say these words, and watch minds try to comprehend what I’m saying, I’m embarrassed by all we have and all we take for granted.
Maybe we are just spoiled, the words tumble around in my mind.
It’s hard to explain freedom of choice when you have no choice at all.
It’s hard to explain picky shoppers to someone who doesn’t have enough food for their family.
It’s hard to imagine someone crying because there are so many shampoos to choose from.
Maybe that’s why when I see an email complaining about the color of a product from The Mercy Shop, I am irritated. Maybe that’s why it bothers me when someone cancels their Fair Trade Friday membership because they can’t choose what goes into their box each month. Or they don’t have anyone else to give the product away they don’t want or like…
But as soon as these emotions hit me, I’m that ignorant mom back in that hair care aisle at Walmart discovering that North Americans have the first world privilege of choice. Impoverished and marginalized women don’t.
When we purchase something fairly traded, we trade our choice to give them a chance. More than anything, these marginalized women want us to love what they create. They want us to wear their story or give it away (if we don’t like the color). They are desperate for us to keep buying, to give them a second and third chance. They work hard, against all odds, to create beauty from nothing. They want us to look past a color that might not be our favorite or a style we might regift, and they want us to choose them. Because that’s really the gift we buy: hope.
In our culture, perspective is fleeting, while comfort and excess are much easier to cling to. That’s why we have to work so hard to remember how the rest of the world lives.
And that’s why we have to look past the money we donate or the products we buy and remember there is a mom or dad or child, much like us, who doesn’t have the freedom to choose anything–including life.
Yeah, so maybe we are spoiled. But we can’t stop buying and supporting women around the globe. That necklace we really don’t need and that scarf that isn’t our favorite color might just be food for another day for a family with no choice at all.
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