25 October 2009

On Privilege

I have always had this aversion to being called “privileged”. I am not entirely sure why it bothers me so much. I think I associate the word with inherited wealth, or more specifically with getting some benefit that you don’t deserve. And even more than that, because the privileged know that they are going to get the benefit (think Paris Hilton), their privilege encourages irresponsibility and poor stewardship of their time, opportunities, and any other talents that the privileged may possess. It’s almost like the promised benefit guarantees that the true potential of the benefactor will be unrealized—privilege becomes the stamp of unmotivated, unproductive lives.

Fair, true, or neither, I want nothing to do with the term. I don’t like the idea of unmerited benefit, because somehow I associate that with being lazy or at least receiving something that I didn’t work for—potentially at the expense of someone who was more deserving but less “privileged”. Call me hard-working, resilient, and persistent, but I don’t want to be known as too talented, because that would mean that things came easy and that I am the product of my advantages rather than being “self-made”. I have always hated winning a game that someone let me win more than I have despised losing (which is a significant statement), and it is equally unpleasant to think that life success is just a product of a significant head-start or rules that have given me an upper-hand.

But here’s been my most recent newsflash: You are in Oxford, England. No matter how you shake it, that is a significant blessing—one that will carry privilege with it for the rest of my life. But the reality is that I was privileged long before I came to Oxford. You see, I have preferred to think of privilege as strictly financial, something that only the disgustingly rich experience—you know, the spoiled ones. But even under this definition, I can’t deny that I have had my privileges. I was raised by two loving parents (which certainly is becoming more and more rare), I had a comfortable existence where I didn’t have to worry about my temporal needs, and even if I hadn’t had these first two things, I was born white in America. The reality is that my relative position in the world is one of privilege.

But beyond that, the reality is that privilege is often accumulated. I think Jacqueline Novogratz may have described it best in The Blue Sweater, when she said that “individuals gain privilege by their upbringing, beauty, athletic ability, or education, not simply from where they come or to whom they are born.” Similarly, Malcolm Gladwell promotes the concept (in Outliers) that the most talented and accomplished members of our society may have gained their status through a small advantage that was exponentially motivated over time (e.g. an athlete who is slightly more talented receives better coaching and is able to increase the initially small advantage). And I have certainly benefited from this kind of accumulation. Athletic talents (while something that I definitely had to work at) provided the opportunity for me to attend an excellent University, and eventually to open doors that would lead to a Rhodes Scholarship. It is overwhelmingly clear that I have been blessed—I have been the benefactor of privilege. And that concept makes me very uncomfortable.

I think my uneasiness is rooted in the feeling that somehow I have received something that I shouldn’t have, or have benefitted from unfairness or inequality. But the reality is that refusing to acknowledge my privileged status doesn’t change a thing. In fact, the better question is, what do we do with privilege? If you are reading this blog on a computer, you are privileged in many ways. Knowing this, our time would be better spent asking what the appropriate response to privilege is rather than trying to explain it away. It is possible that the real reason why privilege is so uncomfortable to me is because I know that it comes with a level of responsibility. The most important thing that I can do as a privileged person is, first, to refuse to allow my privilege to turn into a sense of entitlement. I must refuse to internalize the advantaged position that I hold in society. Instead, I must carry my privilege as a great responsibility. We each have a responsibility to be good stewards of our circumstances. So I have realized that I can no longer refuse to recognize the advantages that I have been given, because doing so makes it much easier to waste them. Instead, I will be willing to acknowledge the benefits that I have received in order to accept the responsibility that must accompany them.

1 comment:

  1. I think of the parable of the talents. To one was given 10, another 5, the third 1. To much who has been given, much will be expected. And the master in the parable says "well done, good and faithful servant", he doesn't say good and successful. And the beauty of that is God also says he will never give us more than we can handle.

    So good news and bad. It is some of a responsibility, but greater is He in me.