The world of media and social media has sure taken a turn at 50 mph from focusing on the Coronavirus pandemic to the racial divide in America. The disparity in perspectives is broad. Lots of talking and not much listening. Lots of arguing and not much finding middle ground. Lots of postulating and yet moving to action is an entirely different story. One word that makes people squirm more than sleeping in a tent with mosquitoes is the word “privilege.”
It would be hard to argue anything other than the fact that my life has been framed by significant privilege. If that word is a sticking point for you, imagine my life as a sailboat on the water with much of my journey to date having been traversed with the wind at my back.
Born an American, in America. Raised in a two-parent, middle-class family. My dad was a hard worker, and my mom loved us generously. I had a roof over my head and don’t recall ever missing a meal. I attended well-funded schools where I felt safe and the better part of my private college education was funded.
I’ll stop there although another page or two could be written in a heartbeat regarding the enormous privilege I have experienced in every facet of my life. Some defining points of privilege would be like the ones above that seem obvious to most, but there’s many more that I wouldn’t have even recognized without help. Clean water, shoes, organized sports, vacations, drum lessons. Or walking down the street or entering a store without being seen as a threat. Or being pulled over and immediately knowing the infraction and being primarily focused on the fine and insurance premiums. Situations and opportunities that someone without these types of privileges would quickly be able to pinpoint because their reality would have been vastly different.
Why is Privilege a Word That Makes People With Privilege Squirm?
Here’s the thing though; the acknowledgment of privilege can be a real shot to the ego. After all, if I had a running start and someone else didn’t, does that mean I didn’t earn everything I have? If I didn’t earn it, then in many ways, I don’t deserve it, right? If I don’t deserve it, oh crud where is this going?!? For some of us, this thought process leads to denying our privilege altogether. Some might say, “Hey! I worked hard for that degree! I work hard every day!” I wholeheartedly agree. No one is denying the blood, sweat, and tears many have spent to become who they are today. Every human is faced with difficulty. Yet, what if you didn’t have access to quality education from the day you were born? What if healthy food wasn’t available? What if a safe, quiet place to sleep wasn’t possible? What if you weren’t exposed to others who furthered their education and knew the unspoken rules to do so? What if, what if, what if? What if, further, your parents, grandparents, and great grandparents (I could keep going) were never afforded these basic liberties either? Would the person you’ve become and your story have changed in any way without that wind at your back? I suggest another direction for our thoughts. Perhaps, just perhaps, awareness of our privilege, big and small, could lead me/you/us to increased humility and gratitude, to new levels of compassion and empathy and even impassion us to take steps toward pursuing justice, equality and opportunity for those who’ve never had the feeling of wind in their sails.
I remember serving at a Challenge Day event at the local high school in 2018. The day ended with an exercise called “walk the line” that sought to encourage and unite a high school around common experiences and also bring awareness to everyone’s unique story. There were two long blue lines parallel to each other and about 15 feet apart. We were all asked to stand on one side of the line as a facilitator read a list of statements. Each time a statement was true for you, you were to walk across to the 2nd line and look back at those who remained, those who said the statement was false for them. The exercise was excruciating as I walked across time and time again, looking back to see those who could not say they had experienced benefits I considered to be a baseline, and stood still as the guide referenced everything from family members doing prison time to the presence of drugs and alcohol in the home and going to bed hungry. The last question was by far the most haunting. The group was asked, “If you had a childhood, walk to the other side.”
“Oh, that one’s easy,” I thought as I moseyed my way to the other side before turning back to see that half the room hadn’t even flinched. The answer, though a reflection of an entirely different life than I had experienced, was just as easy for them to answer. No, they answered “no” to having experienced a childhood. Not one bit. I was heartbroken, as was everyone else on my side of the line. I learned much about my own privilege that day and much about an alternative story that so many have lived.
I circle back for a moment because I think this is important for some to identify with a life of privilege. Acknowledging our privileged experiences doesn’t mean we don’t or haven’t worked hard, aren’t committed, or haven’t had a hand to play in our story and pursuing our destiny. It doesn’t mean we haven’t navigated hard things. We’ve all experienced difficult relationships, events, and seasons. Accepting our privilege doesn’t diminish the things we’ve accomplished and doesn’t eliminate the difficult chapters we’ve faced. Our choices, of course, do matter. Admitting our privilege just means that we realize we were dealt a hand of cards, hand after hand, in fact, that gave us options to thrive that was out of grasp for many of our counterparts.
Privilege is a gift, and our awareness of it is a gift to those who’ve been born into a very different story. I believe our awareness of privilege is a powerful tool in helping to shed the blinders of racism, arrogance, and superiority. Will you join me in increasing awareness of what we’ve received and to seeing, loving, and serving people with a whole new framework in the decade ahead?
Lets together cheers to that.