June 10, 2008 by multiracialsky
This is a post in response to the Anti-Racist Parent column, Is Privilege Offensive?
Privilege is absolutely not offensive. Scary to talk or think about? Yes, it can be. For many of us who have to talk to our kids about the high level of privilege our family experiences, it involves telling them about people who are just like them/us who do not have some of the basics that our kids often take for granted: food, shelter, parents, clothes, band-aids, heat, diapers, and the more complicated stuff like a fair trial, a fair chance in college admissions, or equal opportunities to create a livable existence for themselves and their families. If some people are underprivileged, that makes the rest of us overprivileged.
We talk about privilege in our family, with our children, all the time, although we don’t always use that exact word. We talk about my and my partner’s beliefs about the equality of all people, and also about the resources, choices, and opportunities our family (and our kids) have that are unfairly available to only a select a group of people. It can be hard to talk with children about the lack of privilege others are experiencing daily, especially when it manifests as extreme poverty, but I believe we as parents must do it anyway.
Imagine this: Three people are in a 100 meter race. The first person is standing relaxed at the starting line, stretching and waiting for the race to begin. One minute before the race begins, the second person arrives (panting) at the starting line. As the starting shot is fired, the third person runs up–and the three racers are off. The first (waiting, relaxed) person wins the 100 meter race–but not by much. Now, does it change anything to know that the second person had to run 100 meters directly before this race, and the third person had to run 400 meters right before the race? Is the first person the fastest runner? Is the first person truly the winner? Is it a ‘fair race’ if we only take into account that final 100 meter distance that all three runners were required to participate in? This story (that I’ve read in different forms many places) illustrates how privilege works. If you imagine the race from each runner’s perspective, this story also shows how difficult it can be to see (and understand) the other runners’ viewpoints.
I do not want my kids to grow up thinking they are simply ‘lucky’ and other kids are ‘unlucky’. It’s definitely not that simple. There are individual and institutional daily choices being made (as they have been for hundreds of years) that consistently privilege certain groups of people above others. People are privileged based on race (both perceived and actual), skin tone, gender, sexuality, religion, income, education, marital status, and physical ability, to name some of the most common factors.
I believe those of us who find ourselves more privileged in this world do owe something to those who are less privileged. I often wonder what would happen if we each did all we could for those who–for whatever reasons–have less privilege today than we do. What does true activism look like? Is it enough to speak out against offensive jokes and comments, to be an anti-racist parent, and to purchase a cartful of groceries for the food-shelf once a month? Can I expect the world to change if I am not working towards that change myself? Can I expect someone else to step up and do something I myself am unwilling to do?
Note on those ‘Got Privilege?’ t-shirts: I first saw one worn by a new friend I met at the Loving Conference last year (and yeah, I still want one). My friend is White. The majority of people I have met who have been to the White Privilege Conference are White. (I originally thought it was a conference for White people.) So my frame of reference for the shirts is a bit different because I initially met and pictured White people wearing them. I think those t-shirts are great, by the way. They are for anyone–of any race–to wear, anyone who is aware of their own privilege(s). I see these shirts as similar in message to the ‘Don’t assume I’m White’ t-shirts, worn by both PoC and White persons alike. The point is not whether the person wearing the shirt is or is not White–the point is to get people thinking about their racial assumptions. And the ‘Got Privilege?’ shirt is to get people thinking about privilege, hopefully about their own.