“Privilege” Isn’t A Dirty Word; It’s a Reality

I ordered Celeste Ng’s bestseller Little Fires Everywhere at the end of May when I noticed that Hulu had adapted the story into a television series. Naturally, I was intrigued. While I was reading the novel, the news broke of yet another act of police violence against the black community, this time in Minneapolis, and America was once again plunged into a heated dialogue about racial injustice, biases against people of color that are engrained in our society, and the responsibility we all have toward our fellow man to ensure equal treatment and justice regardless of race, gender, orientation, or class. Little Fires Everywhere was a stark – and timely – reminder that our personal perception of the world is tainted by our own personal prejudices, expectations, and biases. We put systems in place that may be convenient in order for us, and people like us, to make sense of the world, but these ideals inevitably fall apart when we are confronted with people who do not fit our mold.

The novel follows the story of a white upper-class family, the Richardsons, who live in the ritzy, idyllic, real-life Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio. The community itself is constructed to function as a utopia, of sorts, “where everything is planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colors of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead” [1]. Shaker Heights is a paradigmatic depiction of what is, for all intents and purposes, the “bubble” of white, upper-middle class suburbia. The novel is organized as a series of vignettes and snapshots, following each character as they navigate real-life issues such as racism, classism, teen pregnancy, abortion, adoption, family, motherhood, and friendship. These real-life issues continually butt up against the carefully ordered rules, ideals, and lifestyles of the residents of of Shaker Heights, and the “little fires” caused by these issues accumulate into a blaze that begins to tear down the main characters’ carefully constructed, if not naïve, view of the world around them. This ultimately leads them to consider that, maybe, life is just a little more complicated than the American Dream of the privileged few.

“Privilege” has become something of a taboo word among (forgive me for generalizing) conservatives and evangelicals, probably because privilege often falsely associated with guilt. “I don’t need to feel sorry for the way I was raised”, people argue; “Just because some people have a rough go of it in life doesn’t mean I have to feel guilty that I turned out okay”; “I’ve had my share of problems in life too, and I didn’t ask for someone else to fix them”; “I’m not a racist, so don’t try to peg me as one” – and so on and so forth. You’ve heard it all before. The problem with this way of thinking, however, is that privilege has nothing to do with guilt.

I grew up in a predominately white middle class suburb of Chicago. Plainfield, Illinois was my Shaker Heights. I had a pretty big house; we went on family vacations every summer; I got a car when I got my driver’s license; I went to good public schools that had good funding and good teachers; my parents contributed a lot to my college education. I had, in every sense of the word, privilege. I don’t feel guilty or ashamed of my upbringing. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities I was afforded by the hard work of my mom and dad. But, in many ways, my privileges blurred my perception of the world outside my own context. My upbringing in white, middle-class suburbia set the benchmark for happiness and success, in my mind, as white, middle-class suburbia, and so naturally I evaluated and judged the behavior of other people – the way they work, dress, play, or worship – based on (you know where I’m going here) white, middle class suburbia!

The fact that I grew up this way is not a bad thing; it is not something I need to feel guilty for. But my upbringing was not the only upbringing, nor was it a “right” or “wrong” upbringing. It was simply one of billions of individual life experiences. I do realize that I was afforded advantages and privileges that other people — people of color, lower-class individuals, and women, for example — are not typically afforded. I recognize that I judged the actions and questioned the motives of others who did not conform to my white, middle class idea of the “right” way to live, and took for granted the inherent advantages of being a white American male. For these missteps, I apologize and repent.

Recognizing privilege is not a matter of guilt. Rather, recognizing privilege is understanding that America was established by white people, for white people, and as a white person, I have benefitted, indirectly and directly.

Though many of America’s founders denounced the institution of slavery and were even successful in banning it outright in northern territories, slavery was still allowed to flourish in the American south. When southern states attempted to leverage their slave population in order to bolster their representation in Congress, much to the chagrin of the northern states, the founders compromised: in 1787, they passed a series of clauses allowing slaveholding states to count 60% of their slave population for the purpose of distributing representatives in Congress. Though this had the appearance of progress for black civil rights, it was strictly a political scheme to diffuse conflict between the northern and southern states [2]. It wasn’t until 1870 that blacks – black males, that is – were represented equally (on paper, anyway) in American politics [3]; black women had to wait until 1920. Black students were finally afforded the freedom to intermingle with white students in public schools in 1954. The Brown vs. Board of Education suit, which was instrumental in desegregation laws, was far from the final blow for racism and black oppression in the United States. For example, a Cleveland, Mississippi school district lost a 50-year legal battle and desegregated its schools for the first time . . . in 2016 [4].

Schools are an excellent example of systemic oppression of people of color, as segregation still exists in the way funding is apportioned for public schools. A lawsuit filed in New Jersey alleged that “school district borders are drawn along municipality lines that reflect years of residential segregation”. This holds true for the majority of school districts in the United States. More than 50% of students in the U.S go to schools in which more than three-quarters of students are white, or three-quarters of students are nonwhite. Predominately nonwhite schools receive substantially less funding than predominately white schools, to the tune of about $2,200 … per student. Altogether, U.S. school districts who serve mostly students of color receive $23 billion less in public funding than school districts who serve mostly white students. Due to the fact that school districts who primarily serve students of color tend to be located in high-poverty areas, which have historically been high-poverty areas due to the aforementioned municipal segregation, residents pay less in taxes, and less money goes into the school district [5]. School districts with less funding have a lower graduation rate, which exacerbates poverty in the district, continuing the cycle. This is only one example of racial segregation from decades ago that white people still benefit from to this day.

All this to illustrate that there are still inherent advantages to being a white American that make many areas of life easier for someone like me than for a person of color. Recognizing privilege is coming to terms with the fact that, as a white person, you live in a culture in which laws, systems, and cultural norms benefit you, but are stacked against people of color. This doesn’t make all white people inherently racist; but insisting on maintaining antiquated systems that, by their very nature, make life harder for black Americans is institutional racism. It is an injustice. There are no two ways about it.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:3-11

[1] Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere. Penguin Press (2017). Cover.

[2] https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Fou’nding-Fathers-and-Slavery-1269536


[4] https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/05/17/478389720/after-50-year-legal-struggle-mississippi-school-district-ordered-to-desegregate

[5] https://www.npr.org/2019/02/26/696794821/why-white-school-districts-have-so-much-more-money

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