Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Hidden Hazard of Privilege

     I grew up in a working class neighborhood. A few households were prosperous; others less so. Our family was somewhere in between. Some neighbors lived well below the poverty line. As lean as things were for my family when I was a child, only today do I realize I grew up in a household of ‘privilege.’

      Imagine that; growing up lower middle class and experiencing privilege. Well, everything is relative. To people who possess the top shelf type (think, country club memberships and European vacations), our privilege was passé. Nevertheless, even modest families like mine held distinct advantages over others, and they can be invisible; like air: we breathe it; we live in it and mostly don’t even think about it. Then again, if you’re, say an astronaut or scuba diver or coal miner; air becomes something you’re very much aware of. It’s a privilege.

     Growing up, I lived under assumptions that were essentially invisible. For instance, it never ever occurred to me that I might not have clean, pressed clothes each day for school. Or not have enough to eat. Or the heat might get turned off. Or the power. Or we might be evicted.

     Privilege comes in several forms. Among them: economic privilege, class privilege, male privilege and white privilege. There’s even sexual orientation privilege. A lot of privilege is earned. A lot of it is the luck of the draw: being born to a certain family, or being a certain gender, height, shape or color. Or having eyes or arms or legs that work.

     Here’s the rub: no matter how it’s acquired, with privilege comes an important responsibility: recognizing we have it. Otherwise, moving with it in the world carries the hazard of negatively affecting others. If we’re not careful, it can be used as a weapon – which is exactly how I once used mine. What I did was hurtful and wrong; and it was as obvious as the air we breathe, yet it still happened.

     I was in grade school. My classmate "Marsha" was a quiet, shy type. Sometimes she’d come to school looking a hot mess, her hair uncombed and wearing long, dingy-looking dresses and well-worn sneakers. Because she was so different, kids picked on her. Whenever it happened, I remember always thinking they were wrong for doing it.

     One day, some of the kids were in rare form; spitting outrageous and disparaging remarks about Marsha. Somehow I got caught up in the banter. And I joined in.

     I immediately regretted my actions. What I didn’t understand then was that I had got caught up in my privilege (to not be born poor), and used it to my benefit (in this case, amusement) at the expense of a fellow human being.

     What happened those many years ago was a childish expression of privilege. The way privilege plays out among adults varies. For instance, not growing up in a dangerous neighborhood is an economic privilege. Walking hand-in-hand with the one you love without being stared at is a heterosexual privilege. Uttering an emotional outburst at work without others joking, ‘it’s her time of the month,’ is a male privilege.

     A lot of folks ask, ‘what’s the big deal?’ Generally, they are the ones who hold the privilege – like me and the kids who bullied poor Marsha.

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