Last night I read an open letter to Mr. Trump written by Brandon Stanton of Humans of NY. I wanted to share it. I didn’t. This morning my feed was full of friends and family members who did.
Because compassion. And understanding. Are what’s missing.
Because there is so much anger. And because people feel justified.
Then, a friend posted another article about privilege that hit me right between the eyes.
These conversations feel so important. More than that. These conversations about who we are and why we believe we have the rights we do, these conversations about equality, justice, and choice… they are life and death. They are happiness and misery. They are the difference between apathy and understanding. And I believe these conversations can turn the tide and change things for us all.
My perspective about this privilege thing has changed so dramatically over the last decade. I hardly recognize myself.
As a child, like most of us, I had no idea that I sat in a special seat. To me, there was a struggle. There were things I wanted, that I couldn’t always have. I remember feeling, deeply, that I was one of the “poorest kids” in my class. This meant that I repeated outfits (within a week, or a month). This meant that I didn’t always wear the “cool” brand of jeans. This meant that in sixth grade I didn’t make the cheerleading squad because my mom and dad chose not to pay for me to have a private cheering coach. (I never realized that my lack of coordination might have played into it, at least a little).
This was certainly not privilege.
Life moved on. And I moved on.
I was either unaware of my privilege or, maybe I just completely accepted it until I was well into my twenties. My parents, my teachers, and my culture reinforced this attitude by telling me that I could become anything I wanted. The most difficult obstacle to overcome, at this point, was to decide what that was. Both of my parents changed careers in midlife. I remember seeing this as a huge drain on them and on our family. As I looked at the horizon in front of me, and heard society asking me what I wanted, the only thing I was sure of was that I wanted to succeed at one thing and love that one thing. This seemed to me like a tall order. One friend’s dad tried to convince us to become Engineers. We were smart, he said, and women would have an advantage in a a career dominated by men. This didn’t seem like anything earth shattering to me. I had been competitive with the boys in advanced classes my whole short life. It also didn’t really appeal.
“Dominated by men” was not something that had ever really made a difference to me. I was aware that women in history fought hard for their rights. By the time I was married I had even traveled enough, outside my small suburban life, to have seen this with my own eyes. Nothing, however, really prepared me for the change in perspective that I got when I first traveled to Africa in 2005.
It is impossible to travel to one of the least developed places in the world and not come face to face with the startling realization that your whole life has been full of all kinds of advantages, luxuries, and opportunities that you felt were just a normal part of life. I spent about 5 weeks in Niger that first time, and I definitely felt, after returning to America, that I would never be the same again.
When we moved here in 2007, however, I was totally unprepared for the long road I would hobble down, in terms of a shift in perspective. There is some indescribable mixture of tenderness, grief, and guilt that I feel only people who have passed weeks that have turned into months that have turned into years away from the Western World can understand. It’s not only the repetition of the stories of friends and neighbors who were
married at 14 or
who never learned to read or
who were hit with a large stick when crying out during the pain of childbirth.
Not just that.
It’s not just realization that everyone you ever knew had choices and rights and the ability to go and do when others never did.
It’s not just the suffering that you see or the strength in which it is endured.
It’s also, that -day in and day out- everywhere you go, people notice you. You can’t take a walk without someone asking you for something. You can’t drive a car, or heaven forbid, crash your car, without bearing the responsibility of the riches that must possess. You can’t buy vegetables without wondering if you got the best price.
And then one day, you are standing in a room full of people, and you realize that you are the only person in the room that looks like you. You feel self conscious and misunderstood. You wonder about those standing around you. What do they think of you? And then you begin to understand what it feels like to live without privilege. You think of things you have read about civil rights. You think of the history of slavery in your own homeland. And the first step into this understanding is realizing that even though you are the only white girl in the room, you will never be able to separate yourself from the privilege. Because you probably have more education and more money and more connections and MORE…. and I never chose to have more. But somehow I can’t get rid of it. Every day I feel it, I’m aware of it, I love it or I hate it, but always… it’s there.
Just like I never chose to be privileged, neither did Trump, or Hillary, or any of the others. We don’t choose where we are born. We can’t be held accountable for understanding something outside of our experience.
But we, with the privilege, can be held accountable for WHAT we DO experience and for how hard we try to understand.
I think of my neighbor. She lives on the other side of the cinder block wall from me. She and I live lives that are almost completely incomparable. She is the second wife (the first wife lives next door too) to a man with two or three wives. There are lots of children, lots of sand, and not a lot of food, or luxuries or anything else making her life easy. Did she choose this life? Did she choose her husband? Did she choose her children? Did she choose her religion?
I wonder what she would have to say to Trump.
That’s kind of a moot point. Because the bigger question is… would he ever care to listen?
There are a few things that living outside my homeland have emphasized to me about what we need as Americans. Compassion is at the top of the list. Also, a better understanding of the wide world ….where others are different from us. This takes humility. And humility doesn’t seem to be something that anyone I see on TV is full of or celebrating.
Privilege. Some of us have more than others. Miss Aibileen Clark, a black maid in
knew all about this when she said, “You is smart. You is kind. You is important.” Some of us are told this from the day we are born. Others are never expected to be smart, or kind, or important.
How we see our privilege, our awareness (or lack of awareness) of it, and the ways in which we choose to operate because of it define our character. Our perspective on privilege is, perhaps, something that shapes us more than almost anything else. Certainly, this is true when interacting on a global scale. These days the world is small. Staying inside our suburban bubbles is becoming increasingly difficult. I would venture to say that ignoring the issue of privilege when thinking about politics or global leadership is, perhaps, even dangerous.
What do you think about privilege?