(Note: I’ve been working on this piece for nearly a month, and over that time have realized that my thoughts are probably best broken up into two parts–one on generic privilege, and a second on white privilege. I plan to post part two in a few days.)
I’d like to tackle a topic that in recent times has been heavily associated with race and gender, though I’d argue that a proper look at it should expand beyond those boundaries. It’s the concept of “privilege,” which is often preceded by “white” and/or “male,” perhaps recently most notably when Brock Turner spent only three months in jail for sexual assault. Yes, white/male privilege seems to be a cultural flashpoint lately, with some on one end of the spectrum denying its existence entirely, and others on the opposite end sometimes appearing to blame it for just about all of the world’s evil. It has become such a loaded phrase in some circles that it’s quite possible that merely reading the phrase evokes a strong response in you.
So let’s talk about privilege, but not just white or male privilege. While acknowledging that some of us have decidedly more than others, I contend that I, and virtually everyone reading this, has benefited from at least some form of “privilege.” . To defend this assertion, I’d first like to look at the dictionary definition:
The phrasing above jibes with the way that “white privilege” was originally defined by Peggy McIntosh, who is widely credited or blamed, depending on one’s point of view, for coining the phrase. In her 1988 essay “WHITE PRIVILEGE AND MALE PRIVILEGE: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies,” she wrote of it thusly:
I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious.
For the purposes of taking today’s discussion beyond whiteness and maleness, I’m going to combine a couple of key words from the dictionary definition and from McIntosh’s original work on the concept. Let’s define “privilege” in two simple words: unearned advantage. So today I’ll stick to discussing the gender-neutral privileges from which I, a non-white male, have benefited. (And in Part 2 I’ll wade into the minefield of racial privilege. Fun!).
PRIVILEGE ONE: I enjoy “Economic Privilege” because I was born in the United States.
I have an unearned economic advantage over more than 95% of the world’s population simply because I was born in its most prosperous nation, and I didn’t become truly cognizant of that fact until my teen years. Of course, being raised in the 70s and 80s, whenever I didn’t want to finish my lima beans as a child, my mother attempted to infuse me with my share of guilt over the starving children in China, Africa, or whatever the flavor of the month happened to be. However, I never really internalized those chastisements. Truth be told, I first considered my American economic privilege in 1984, when I first heard rapper Melle Mel’s “Beat Street Breakdown,” where in one small section he compares American life to that of the Third World:
There’s gold in the street, and diamonds under feet
And the children in Africa don’t even eat
Flies on their faces, they’re living like mice
And the houses even make the ghetto look nice
The water tastes funny, it’s forever too sunny
And they work all month and don’t make no money
At age 15 when I heard that song, nearly all of my social life revolved around my school and my church–places where virtually all of my peers were from families with more financial resources than mine. So of course I didn’t view our family to be well off. However, “the houses even make the ghetto look nice” was a “full-stop, rewind-the-tape-and-listen-to-that-again” moment for my 15-year-old self. In that moment, when I first considered a global view rather than my limited first-world perspective, I began to realize how blessed/lucky I am simply to be born where I was born. Just being born here means that one is going to have access to opportunities and resources that those who aren’t will not have.
Now, more than 30 years later, the numbers bear out that Melle Mel’s words are still very much true. In 2015 the poverty line for a family with two adults and two children in the U.S. was $24,036. But on a global scale, a household that is below the poverty line, earning $24,000 per year, is in the 58th percentile worldwide and per the CNN Global Wage Calculator, earns 7 times that of a teacher in Ethiopia.
I could go on for days about American economic privilege, but I’ll make just one more point before moving on: as a 15-year-old, I didn’t have the understanding to comprehend the full meaning and magnitude of one other line from the song above: “The water tastes funny…” But as an adult, I am now acutely aware that we water our lawns, flush our toilets, and wash our cars with gallons upon gallons of water that is much cleaner than that which hundreds of millions of human beings are able to drink. 783 million people (more than twice the population of the United States, and more than 1 out of 10 people on the planet) do not have access to safe drinking water. (By the way, if you’re interested in donating to help address this overwhelming need, here is just one of many mission organizations that exist to help alleviate this issue.)
PRIVILEGE TWO: I enjoy additional economic privilege because I was born into a family with a decent income for the United States.
By American standards, my family was by no means upper or upper-middle class, but neither did we really struggle. My mother stayed at home and raised us, but we were a two-income household because of my father. By the time I came along, he was well into his second career, as a postman, after having retired from the Army as a First Lieutenant nearly a decade before my birth. (I was a surprise child–my parents had three adolescents and were in their 40s when I was born.) Growing up, I had everything I needed, most of what I wanted, and our parents sacrificed in particular to provide enhanced educational opportunities for us.
It also happens that I was blessed as a youngster to have been given close-up perspective of rungs well above and well below where we were on the financial ladder. At church, early elementary school, and especially in high school, the great majority of my friends were from families *far* more wealthy than mine. But in my neighborhood, we were one of the wealthiest families around and lived in one of the two or three largest houses. During my teen years, there were times that this created some fascinating juxtapositions. In the mid/late 80s, it would not be unusual at all for me to hang out at a particular friend’s house with a group of buddies on any given Friday or Saturday night. I just checked Zillow and the specific house I’m thinking of is roughly 4,600 square feet and sits on around 2 acres of land. After an evening there, I’d jump in my beat-up ’73 Chevy Nova, head home to our modest 1,600 square-footer, pull up in the driveway, see some guys that I’d grown up with all my life hanging out on the street corner in front of our house, and instead of going inside, hang out there with them for a little bit. Most of my neighborhood friends lived in the standard 864-square foot houses that were built there in the 60s. Some of them were from single-parent households, lived heavily on government subsidy, had already been in trouble with the law, and would be in prison or dead before age 30. Yes, it was a completely normal weekend night for me to transform from the poorest kid in one group to the richest kid in another in the course of that 15-minute drive home. In that process, I became acutely aware of both the advantages and disadvantages that I was born into.
In case you haven’t surmised it from the rest of this piece, I attended an expensive private school in high school. I was there on a near-full academic scholarship, but even the fraction of the normal cost that my parents had to pay was a significant sacrifice for them. I’d like to present a hypothetical scenario involving one of my poorest friends from my neighborhood, one of my better-off friends from high school, and me. Suppose for a moment that all three of us had the exact same GPA, were the exact same age, had squeaky-clean behavior records to date, and committed the exact same stupid teenager offense at age 16: went out with friends, consumed some alcohol, decided to drive home, and got caught by the police. (Of course, my neighborhood friend wouldn’t have had a car or even a license in high school, but for the sake of the illustration, let’s pretend that he had his license and he was the most sober among a group of friends and as such drove a buddy’s car.) Let’s also put aside the differences in likely perceptions of the three of us by the legal system and the different levels of attorneys we would have had for a moment and pretend that all of us received the same sentence. Even in that scenario, equal punishments would have had radically different impacts on our lives. Let’s say for argument’s sake that all of us were sentenced to a $3000 fine or 60 days in jail, and that all three sets of parents desired to have identical responses. How does that sentence change our lives?
Wealthy friend–His parents pay the fine so he doesn’t go to jail. However, his parents tell him that he has to get an after-school job to pay them back every dime of the fine, plus interest, and that he is not allowed to drive for a year. That’s a reasonably tough parental punishment outside of the legal system. However, once he has finished paying back the money, there are no other residual ramifications. If anything, the whole experience might end up being a net positive, as he has to work a near-minimum-wage job and learn to take responsibility for his actions.
Me–My parents pay the fine as well so I don’t go to jail. I also get the same parental punishment as my friend above. no driving, job, pay back the money. However, the residual consequences that are completely outside of my control are quite different, because in my situation, paying that fine would have meant that my parents would have had to pay every dime that they’d set aside for my tuition, and then also dip into other monies that would have been spent on the various summer education enrichment programs that they paid for me to do. I likely would have had to withdraw from the high school that I attended and go to a public school, probably get a lower SAT score than I actually did because I wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of the extra educational opportunities, perhaps would have gotten into a lesser college as a result of the aforementioned items, etc. It definitely would have brought bigger consequences than my high school friend, but probably nothing life-destroying for me, either.
Poor friend–$3,000? Forget it. His mom doesn’t have it, and has absolutely no way to get it. He’s going to jail, and because of the environment he’s exposed to there, quite possibly remains in a cycle of brokenness, crime, and poverty.
From my experience, the higher the financial position of the kid’s family–a completely unearned-by-the-teenager advantage– the greater the ability to recover from a mistake. It’s simply a much bigger safety net.
OTHER PRIVILEGE FROM WHICH I’VE BENEFITED
Without going into as much detail, here are a few other examples of unearned advantages in my life:
- I was a black kid born in the Deep South in 1968, which may not sound like much of an advantage, but it’s a massive advantage over being a black kid born in the Deep South in 1958, 1948, or earlier. I had far more freedoms and opportunities for virtually all forms of advancement than my predecessors.
- I was born with natural academic ability significantly greater than most of my peers and thus didn’t have to work very hard to be successful in school.
- As briefly alluded to earlier, I was born into a family that valued education and my parents sacrificed to pay for numerous educational opportunities outside of traditional schooling.
- I was born into a loving two-parent household and thus didn’t have to experience the abandonment, abuse, etc. that many of my peers did.
In short, yes, my own efforts have something to do with whatever level of earthly success I may appear to have “earned,” but I’m not arrogant enough to think that the unearned advantages that I started with didn’t also play a significant role in said perceived successes.
“OK, Ben, I get it. You had privilege. I did too. So what???”
When I hear the words “unearned advantage” and try to view it through the lens of my faith, I am immediately drawn to Ephesians 2:8-9:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.
As a young follower of Christ, I was taught the passage of Scripture above with regard to God’s grace, His unmerited favor–an unearned advantage. I was taught that any measure of grace that I’ve received was not because of anything inherently good or special about me, but because of God’s abundant love for me. And therefore, I was not to boast, but to remain humble about my standing as His beloved child. But at the same time, I’ve never been taught, nor have I ever read any Scripture to indicate, that I should feel guilty or ashamed for receiving unmerited favor. It seems that the most appropriate responses to receiving any gift are gratitude toward the giver of the gift and humility towards those who did not receive a similar one. So I believe it is with our earthly unearned advantages–our privilege.
I’m asking us to be more grateful, more humble, and less boastful, especially as we enter this season of Thanskgiving. For those of us with less privilege than the next person, perhaps a focus on being thankful for the unearned advantages that we have might help take the focus off of being jealous that someone else had it even easier than we did. For those of us with more, all I can say is that when I think of some of my neighborhood friends who are in prison or dead and consider their childhood environments, I can’t point any fingers. I don’t know where I would have ended up had I been dealt the hand they were dealt. Perhaps there but for the grace of God and the lottery of birth go I.