The Good of Privilege

starfishI am privileged.  Through the extraordinary luck of my birth, I have had tremendous advantages in building my life – and caring for myself and my family.

My advantages come from being born:

  • in a stable, wealthy country with civil rights and freedoms
  • white (the race of the ruling elite in this country)
  • with good physical and mental health
  • to stable, caring, educated, and economically secure parents
  • in a safe community, with access to good education
  • with an intellect and learning style that conforms to what our society – in this moment – rewards

I can’t take credit for any of these – I’ve been lucky in genetics and circumstance – yet they are the foundation of my life.  Have I worked hard?  Yes – but my achievements have been possible because of the inherent advantages I started with.  Have I overcome challenges?  Of course – but my position of privilege has always provided support and a safety net.  Are there people more privileged than I?  Absolutely.  There are many born with greater wealth, talent and/or power in our society – who are able to leverage those to accrue even more.  But this in no way diminishes the benefits that I’ve enjoyed.

Examining issues of privilege can help us understand the fundamental inequities of our society and world.  But such discussions are often freighted with blame and resentment, defensiveness and guilt.   Blame and resentment on the part of those whose injuries and indignities have long been ignored and unheard.  Defensiveness by  those who don’t want to believe that they have somehow benefitted from an unjust system – that they might not be “entitled” to the good in their lives – especially when they feel overwhelmed by their own hardships (which are a part of even the most privileged life) or the need to further improve their circumstances.  Guilt on the part of those who see the unfairness, who don’t want to be oppressors, but don’t know what to do in the face of it.

Compassion always starts with seeing things as they are – which includes a clear-eyed understanding of privilege in all its forms.  There are no easy answers, but not being able to “fix it” is not an excuse for turning a blind eye.

I’ve thought a lot about the “what can I do?” question.   I still don’t have a sufficient answer, but the following list might be a place to begin:

  • Own our privilege: Acknowledge our advantages and be grateful for them.  Recognize that they mean we are lucky – not special.
  • Notice injustice in all its forms: Look around and see whose lives are harder than ours.  Put ourselves in their shoes and recognize the hardships they face that we do not.
  • Listen deeply to the aggrieved: When people complain of harassment, bigotry, and discrimination, take those complaints seriously and make it our business to learn more about the specifics of their experience.  Explore and think deeply about the conditions that contribute to their circumstances.
  • Acknowledge that our lifestyles are built on the backs of the underpaid: Our food supply, recreation, retail goods, and public services are dependent upon the hard (sometimes dangerous) low wage work of those who will never be able to approach our standard of living – and are often subject to discrimination and bigotry to boot. Why is it that our time and efforts are worth so much more than theirs?  How is it that we deserve cheap food and goods, and low taxes, at the expense of their wellbeing?
  • See – and treat with dignity and respect – those less privileged than us. Hold them as our equals in all interactions, and worthy of kindness, interest, sincerity, and gratitude.
  • Stand up for and protect the vulnerable when we see they are being threatened – whether by individuals, institutions, or policies.
  • Ask how we can help: Find a community or cause in which you can become personally involved, working directly with those in need. Care and understanding come only through relationships; true solutions come only from those experiencing the problems.
  • Leverage our privilege – our education, our social connections, our affluence – to serve those in need and those seeking change.
  • Speak openly about all of the above, so that others can come to see and understand the dynamics of privilege and how the costs of our social and economic structures are borne by the least powerful.

If you are reading this, you enjoy some level of privilege – chances are you share at least some of the traits I’ve listed above for myself.  Certainly you have internet access – and leisure time sufficient to use it.  You are educated and civically engaged.

Use that privilege to make the world a more just, more compassionate place.  There are infinite ways to make a difference – many hands and voices needed.  Help for individuals and families; activism to change the system.  All are vital.

It’s like the story of the boy with the star fish – After a big storm left a vast beach littered with starfish, a young boy was found walking along picking up one at a time, throwing them into the sea so they wouldn’t die in the sun.   When told, “There must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach – you won’t really be able to make much of a difference,” he replied by picking up yet another and throwing it as far as he could into the ocean. He then turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”

We must work to address the underlying problems – to keep the starfish from washing up on the beach in the first place.  But in the meantime, we must try to help each individual that we can to feel safe and valued and able to achieve his or her potential. That would be a powerful use of our privilege.