PRIVILEGE, Part II
A friend wrote that her daughter, a secondary teacher in a private school, asked her students what being privileged meant in today’s society. The discussion that followed was sensitive and deep, she thought.
A few days later she was called into the principal’s office because some parents complained. I don’t know what she said or how the discussion went. What I do know is most of us who are privileged don’t think about what that means. When we find out that some would say we have advantages over others by virtue of where we were born, the color of our skin, or the amount of money our parents had or have, we argue that anyone can have what we have if they work hard enough. We take the benefits of those advantages for granted and we like the concept that work got us those advantages because it means we are smarter, stronger, and harder working than those without those benefits.
However, the best metaphor I have heard for what being privileged means is joining a Monopoly game at the beginning while those who are not privileged join the game two hours after everyone else. Even if they get the prerequisite money, they don’t have land or railroads or even the advantage of passing GO and collecting additional $200 as many times as the others who have been playing for 2 hours. Those who have been playing for 2 hours are in the privileged position and that position has nothing to do with skill, intellect, or hard work and everything to do with chance.
I suppose the students’ parents were offended that their children’s privilege, and their own, was being discussed or questioned. Those who claim privilege rarely want to examine how they got it or what responsibilities might be involved in having it.
I read this morning that a group of people who were being rescued from the coast because they had not left when they were ordered to evacuate. They didn’t leave because they didn’t have transportation or any other means of leaving the area and no place to go to if they left. They described it as not having the privilege of leaving. Indeed. It is a privilege to have a means of escaping calamity to say nothing of having the means to care for family and self after the escape.
Father Gregory Boyle says in his book BARKING TO THE CHOIR that it is a privilege not to have to worry constantly about where the next meal is coming from or how the rent will get paid or how one will get to work if the car breaks down. God forbid that you get sick and can’t work or get to the Mission for food and shelter. For forty percent of the working population a disaster is the distance away of the lack of one paycheck. The rest of us who have a job or sufficient retirement to have a roof over our heads and food on our table are privileged. So when we are asked to help shoulder the burden of someone, recognize that we are privileged, but not by virtue of our own efforts but by chance.
And we are asked to help shoulder the burdens of those less privileged–we are to be yokefellows in the words of Elton Trueblood, the Quaker writer. Is this not what Jesus was talking about when he told the parable of Lazarus and the rich man? (Luke 16:19-31)
Years ago a missionary from Brazil who was speaking to a congregation said, “Live less well that all may live.” You are who you are and you have what you have because God gave it all to you. We have the gift of being able to offer respect, concern, and basic support to one another that all may live. Yes, privilege is a gift, a gift with responsibilities, and as I explained in PRIVILEGE, PART I, it is only enjoyed fully when it is shared.