It’s a privilege to write this.
No, seriously, it’s a privilege of mine. As I sit here typing on a Macbook at the beach during the spring break that I am given as a reprieve from my studies at a great academic institution, I recognize this luxury as a privilege. More importantly, I have begun to recognize the privileges around me, everywhere. Not just the ones that you thank God for in a cursory 10-second prayer of gratitude at Thanksgiving, for “a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, and food on the table.” No, I’ve begun to notice the privilege implicit in every crevice of my life.
Now, before I begin, I recognize that to even write the word “privilege” raises defenses, arguments, and frustrations from prior conversations. It connotes the idea that your success or mine is due to some “luck” outside of our power and that hard work is irrelevant. It carries the idea that all failures must be a result of some sort of systemic oppression enacted by “the man” to keep people down and anyone who has achieved any measure of success must be “privileged” enough to be complicit in this conspiracy.
If you’re expecting that argument, you certainly won’t find it here. I am as firm a believer in the power of grit and work ethic as anybody you will meet. So if you are like me and any of the paragraph above resonated with you, offended by the idea that your success was anything other than a result of your perspiration and determination, I want to invite you on a journey with me. Admittedly, it’s one that I’m still on. I too get irritated when people accuse me of “privilege,” as if it’s something I have control over. I hear you. Please hear me.
(If you prefer, substitute all of my ensuing uses of the word “privilege” with the word “blessing”)
I care about those less fortunate than I am. I really do. But I have realized in the recent weeks that I will never understand their plight. Once a week, I don my polo shirt, khaki pants, and dress shoes and drive in my Honda Accord with leather seats to a local health clinic, where I come as a “have” to a collection of “have nots” (or at least that’s how my thinking often goes). Throughout the night, I do my best to hear their stories, understand their plights, and pray that my heart be softened by their perspectives. But at the end of the night, I have the ability clock out (accumulating hours that will eventually go on my resume) and return to my decidedly upper-middle class lifestyle, forgetting about theirs until the next Thursday. The everyday realities for our patients are ones that I can relegate to a box, to which I am only forced to return once a week and whenever I need to write an essay about a “formative experience.”
Here’s the worst (or best) part about it- There is nothing I can do to relinquish my privilege. Nothing.
My privilege runs far deeper than my bank account, or even that of my parents. It runs deeper than my education, though it certainly encompasses that. I’ve come to realize, through the perspectives of some wiser than I am, that my privilege is something I’ll never be able to leave. Allow me to explain.
If I were to drop out of school right now, I would never be able to absolve my memory of the lessons, stories, advice, perspectives, or inspirations to which I have been exposed. I would never be able to change the fact that attending college was an expectation for my sisters and me. I would never be able to relinquish the fact that I speak “standard” English because everyone I grew up around spoke it. I will never be able to forget the literary techniques I learned in high school that I am employing even as I write this. The fact that I can write this is a testament to my literacy, and your ability to comprehend it testifies to the same. I will never be able to let go of the fact that even when I don’t know answers, I know how to find them and have been given the tools, both technological and psychological, to do so.
If I were to give away every penny that I possess, or foolishly lose it all, I would never be able to relinquish my intimate connections to loving parents, grandparents, sisters, and brothers-in-law (who stand firmly on the pillar of privilege as well) who would drop anything to help me back on my feet. I would never be able to forget their phone numbers, nor would they ever forget me.
If I were to commit myself to never receiving modern healthcare again (a reality with which many Americans are all too familiar), I could never turn back the clock to the critical periods of mental and physiological development in my life where my loving parents nurtured me physically, mentally, and emotionally. I will never know what it is like to have a disability. My body hasn’t been ravaged by addiction, alcoholism, or the abuse of someone whose body has. I will never be able to forget how to write a thank you note, how to finagle Microsoft Word, how to shake someone’s hand, or how to speak publicly.
As reluctant as I am to admit it, I will never have to worry about being stopped by law enforcement simply because of the amount of melanin in my skin or the dialect in my voice. I will never have to be taught how to keep my hands visible. I will never have to explain myself while participating in benign activities. Ever. More fundamentally, I will never be able to relinquish my perspective of the judicial system as one that works, that I have never seen treat me or a loved one unfairly. I will never know what it is like to distrust my country from infancy.
Even if somehow I were to manage all this, to somehow absolve myself of all privilege and fortune, I would know that doing so would have been my choice, that I would still be master of my fate, captain of my own ship, providing my life meaningful direction, and in doing so I would miss the very essence of poverty: namely, the inescapable trapping of a system that dares you to try and break it. That is a dare I will never hear.
Honestly, I don’t want to. I like my privilege and my comfort. And I don’t think that’s necessarily wrong. My parents and grandparents fought hard so that I might enjoy these luxuries, but there are many whose parents and grandparents fought just as hard, but to no avail.
So I sit here, explicitly confronted by the fact that, as much as I wish it were not so, there have been forces at work behind my success far deeper than my own character or agency. I must decide what to do with it. At this point, I remember the words of the great philosopher Uncle Ben from Spider-Man who once declared, “With great power comes great responsibility.” It strangely echoes the sentiments of Jesus Christ when He proclaimed, “To whom much is given, much is required.” The point is the same: I have been blessed so that I might be a blessing to others.
So I pick up my privilege, like coins in a heavy sack. It has burdened my back for far too long, threatening to crush me underneath the weight of guilt, underneath the weight of pride, underneath the quiet nagging in the back of my mind that the successes I’ve achieved are not my own doing. I’m done toting it around. I’m done denying that it exists. It’s time to cash it in, not for my own sake, but for the sake of others.
I know what I’m doing with my privilege.
What will you do with yours?