Resisting the Complacency of Privilege

22 Nov

I want to talk about privilege and how it can give us a false sense of security. In order to do so, I need to locate myself: I am a person with a high level of privilege. I am a white, cis-gender woman. I grew up in a white-collar family where going to college was the expectation. I was entitled, and my parents paid for it. I was assured that I would be a success. In a family with 2 siblings and 2 cousins there are 2 doctors and a lawyer. All five of us have at least a graduate degree. I was told, and shown, that my gender shouldn’t be an impediment to achievement. I have been married to a man for over 20 years so present as heterosexual. We have two children.

The only debt we have is our mortgage. We paid for seminary out of pocket and so don’t have that debt. Our children go to a private school and I am putting myself through another graduate degree. We are saving for retirement. That all said, we have made plenty of tough decisions: our two cars are both more than 10 years old and our house needs quite a lot of work. But we live in a well-to-do neighborhood, and money is not an issue we worry about daily. And, if worst came to worst, we have the safety nets of parents.

When I walk into a room in a professional situation, I expect people to listen to me. That expectation is expressed in how I carry myself, how I meet people’s eyes, and how I shake their hands. My expectation of respect, and how it is sometimes perceived by others, was made clear to me by a CPE supervisor who asked if I was a “blue-blood” – I honestly had no idea what he was talking about.

So you see, I have loads of privilege. I don’t say this to brag. And, frankly, it feels vulnerable to share all this with you. But you need to know where I am coming from because right now, I want to speak to my peers: other people who find themselves in a similar boat.

keep-calm-and-check-your-privilegeLet me describe this boat. This is the boat of “Well, the country may be entering scary times, but I will be fine.” We are not usually people of color, and maybe everyone in your family is white, like mine. We are mostly heterosexual. We are educated. We have professional jobs in fields that require specialization.

You know who you are.

To you, I confess: I am tempted, every day, to put my head into a hole in the sand and just ride out the next few years. Because, for the most part, I could. It feels like my life is not going to be directly impacted by most of these changes: no one in my family is getting deported, no one my family is being denied their right to vote, no one my family is being profiled by police, no one’s marriage is at risk. And if we end up with a pregnant teenager, we have the means to travel somewhere where abortion is legal.

I know the seduction of privilege. I have to fight it every day. It tells me that I “got” mine and that I should just hunker down to protect it.

So why don’t I?

Because I learned, intellectually and in my heart of hearts, that it is true that no one is free while others are oppressed.

I remember pieces of this shift. One occurred when my spouse and I were attending the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston, VA. It was the height of the 90s tech boom. We were in our mid-twenties, no kids, and had bought a house. Property values in our county were on the rise, though, and I complained about it at church one time. “We don’t have kids!” I moaned. “Why should we have to pay property taxes to support schools?”

An older man in the congregation responded with love and patience. It didn’t come with judgement for if it had I never would have listened. He talked about how having good schools benefits an entire community. He listed ways – a list much larger than the scope of this blog posting – that child-free individuals benefit from supporting schools. My mind was changed.

My heart was changed by a woman at church. She was the primary guardian of her grandchildren, and was usually on welfare. I remember the bind she found herself in: the system required her to get a job after a few months of benefits. But that job wouldn’t pay childcare, and her benefits would stop once she was employed. And so she would work a few weeks, then get fired or quit because the (inexpensive) unreliable childcare arrangement wasn’t working out and without someone to watch her grandkids, she couldn’t go to work. If something happened to her car, she had to decide between groceries and repairs – and if she was working but her job wasn’t on the bus line and she couldn’t get there, she would lose the job. In addition to the on-again-off-again job situation, her food stamps wouldn’t pay for necessities like diapers. At one point, she was so desperate for money, she considered selling drugs. I could not sit in my tower of privilege and judge her because I knew she was doing the very, very best she could.

I saw this woman struggle every day to get by. She was my friend, and from her I learned about the cycle of poverty and how impossible it is to get out of it. I learned that the system that so benefited me was slowly killing her. Literally. She had health problems from all the stress – but whenever she sought treatment, she got further into debt because, of course, she had no insurance. Which made her more stressed…

Do you see this cycle?

My heart shifted.

I realized that I was not inherently deserving of the privilege I had. I learned that it was absolutely not fair that my friend had not only been born into poverty, but also could not fight her way out of it.

And like the older member who talked to me about how communities as a whole benefit when they have good schools, I learned from my friend that I, personally, benefit, when people do not have to fight tooth and nail for every scrap we toss them. My friend wanted to work. She wanted to be a productive member of society. She wanted to contribute, to be of use.  And she also wanted her grand-babies to grow up in a safe, loving home, and for them to not go hungry. She was smart, and a hard worker – someone I would hire any day. The workforce was losing out by not having her in it.

connectedSo my mind and my heart have been changed. I understand now that my privilege requires that I be a good ally in the fight for equity and justice. Because I know that men are harmed by sexism, that white people are harmed by racism, and that heterosexual people are harmed by homophobia.

So that story we tell ourselves that we won’t be effected? It is a myth made up to keep people artificially divided, to make it easier to target vulnerable communities. To keep us from using our privilege for good.

So please, oh privileged peers of mine: Resist the desire to hide your head in the sand. Resist the complacency of privilege. They need us in this fight. And we need them.

4 Responses to “Resisting the Complacency of Privilege”

  1. Barbra Justice November 22, 2016 at 5:49 pm #

    Did you see snl’s “the bubble”? I just watched it and it reminded me of this post

    • Rev. Dawn November 22, 2016 at 6:07 pm #

      This one? Yeah, they pretty much nailed it.

  2. Lynne Bodle November 22, 2016 at 9:54 pm #

    Thank you again, Dawn. You say so well what I’ve just begun thinking. . .

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