I’m proud of my privilege

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Danny was the odd kid out in class. He had ADD, he couldn’t play sport to save his life, his mother had recently shacked up with a new man. Being the eldest, he took up the mantle of looking out for his younger brothers.

Steve was an outsider. He was from a non-English speaking background, didn’t have his dad around growing up and both wrestled and accepted his mothers’ view on faith.

Grant changed schools a bit. By the time he finished school, he’d been to 5 schools across two states. Sure, he’d met some mates, some good mates, but never really felt popular.

I’ll tell you about Danny, Steve and Grant. They are all me. Let me turn the story around, and change the perspective:

I grew up in the confines of my parents loving marriage, that also produced my two amazing brothers. My dad went through a trial or two – he was laid off in the coal mines and managed to carve out a landscaping business to support his wife and boys. Sadly, he contracted cancer and was dead just after his 33rd birthday.

I started school at the local state school. My mother re-married a man who I am proud know, a man that supported us the best way he could (and did a solid job of it), a man who always followed the call of his very strong convictions, even when they were unpopular.

My parents (meaning my mum and step-dad) somehow managed to send me to one of the best schools in the district. I don’t know how they did it, but I know it would have been a sacrifice for them. It was there that I was diagnosed with ADD, and despite my best efforts, was never really one of the sporty boys. I can’t say why I moved schools after that, but I did, and was equally happy in all of them. I found a few good mates (the benefits of being an introvert), and some of them I am proud to still call mates decades later (geeze, I’m showing my age!).

Why do I tell you these stories?

I’ve noticed a creeping word in our lexicon. Privilege. You see it more in America, but it’s creeping up here.

Privilege. What is it? It’s a benefit you derive really by the luck of the draw of your birth.

Privilege. It’s also becoming an insult, a put down, a slur. It creeps into conversations as a shut down or shut out. For example, someone like me (who happens to be Anglo-Saxon, straight and Christian) can’t have an idea, opinion or suggestion on someone’s life or experience that is different to mine. For example, I can’t say ‘he got the job because he worked hard for it’ because that would mean I am privileged and supporting a system that uplifts men (and by implication, pushes down people who aren’t men).

This idea of privilege manifests itself in other ways. You may have heard examples of some teachers saying parents shouldn’t read to their children at night, because this is promoting privilege (because some children don’t get read to at night, and this reinforces an unfair system).

Essentially, the idea of ‘privilege’ gets used to say that all my success in life is because I was born into a system that fully supports me and will do whatever it can to ensure I succeed. It also says that people who are different than me (for example, minorities) are born into a system that actively discriminates against them, and will do whatever it can to keep them down.

It says I got the job, because I’m a white, straight man. It says I got the promotion for the same reason. It says I don’t get pulled up by the police because I don’t have coloured skin. It says I don’t get stopped at the airport for bag checks because I don’t look like a terrorist.

Some people use the phrase ‘you got that (whatever) because of your privilege’. For the people that say that, here’s what I think.

My privilege (and make no mistake, I’ve been privileged with plenty) isn’t a ticket to an easy life. It’s a set of expectations. A set of expectations whose results yield rich dividends. A set of expectations that is open to everyone. Everyone.

Expectations?

My privilege expects me to work. There’s no two ways about it. My privilege expects I get up every day, dress appropriately and work.

My privilege expects me to be present in my family. It expects me to be a husband and father who is loving, present, who leads with integrity.

My privilege expects me to look after my family. It expects me to work out problems in my family with my family. It expects me to make future plans, to discipline my children in love, to listen to my wife.

My privilege expects me to show my peers, colleagues and managers with respect. It expects me to respect the delegations and decisions my workplace entrusts to me. It expects me to be a good steward of the resources entrusted to me.

My privilege expects me to respect those who have delegated authority. It expects me to comply with lawful directions in a respectful and honest way. My privilege expects me to obey the road rules. It expects me to be a participative citizen, interested in my community, my state and my nation.

My privilege expects me to be respectful to my fellow citizens. It expects me to listen to differing points of view, ideologies, cultures and ideals, even when I find them offensive.

My privilege expects me to have consequences for not meeting my expectations. Very real, very tangible consequences.

I mentioned the story of Danny, Steve and Grant above. Danny, Steve and Grant could have all been victims of circumstances. Medicated, minorities, single-parent households, austere upbringings, but I’m not a victim.

I’ve been blessed with privilege, but I’ve been blessed with something much more onerous. Expectations. Expectations that I meet and don’t meet every day of my life. Expectations I put on myself, expectations others put on me.

From time to time, you’ll hear people saying you (or me) have gotten an easy life because of our privilege. You’ll hear this loud and clear with ‘victim’ groups who both act like all their problems are someone elses fault (read: yours) and they have no agency in changing their lives.

I’ve benefitted from my privilege, but here’s the rub. If I start failing in my expectations, that privilege is going to evaporate, and quickly. Stop turning put at my job? No amount of privilege will keep me employed. Tune out to my family? Eventually they’ll get the picture that I want to be elsewhere, and they will probably make the first move. Start breaking the road rules, or not complying with the various laws that govern my life? You can bet your bottom dollar that before too long, no amount of privilege will keep me on the right side of the law.

Privilege only works because the privileged keep on practicing self-discipline, and keep meeting the expectations they have for themselves – good expectations, but expectations never the less.

The next time someone accuses, or even casually mentions that you’re privileged, ask them what expectations they put on themselves to better their life. Ask what responsibilities they are taking on board – not who’s supporting them, not who’s keeping them down, but what disciplines they are putting in their life, then tell them to stop practicing privilege.

 

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2 comments

  1. jac forsyth

    You’re right, society does cherry pick with other people’s lives. It also feels like the word advantage is just another way to divide up the human race and turn us against ourselves.
    I have a friend who was paralysed in a road accident a few years ago. By the time I’ve had my third coffee and stumbled to the keyboard, she’s been through the mourning routine from hell and is too exhausted to stay awake. She writes using voice recognition and it’s a slow and stilted process, but she still writes. When it comes to being published, her work will have a huge advantage over mine because she’s writing from a unique and publicity rich perspective. Could I fixate on the unfairness of that? Sure. Would I swap places with her? Hell no!!!!
    I feel advantaged and forever grateful that I am not in her situation. Or that I’m not living in a war zone where staying alive is all I have to worry about. The idea of privilege is so subjective that it has no foundation other than in division and hatred.
    We can’t choose where we’re born and what life dishes out, we can only choose what to do with it. If I have a good life, I want that for others. If I could do something to help my friend have an easier life, I would do it in a heartbeat. Why would I want less for her than I want for myself?
    In the end all we have is whether we add to the separation or try to reduce it. I’m grateful that I am in a position, culturally and mentally, to be able to do that. And maybe that’s where the real privilege lies?

  2. Penne Cole

    Great article. It will be a sad day if we are all trying to fit in with the lowest common denominator just because we don’t want to appear privileged. No way would I stop reading my kids bedtime stories, or providing them the best, most nutritional food possible, just because someone else can’t afford it.

    Privileged? Yes, I was privileged not to be born in a war-torn country. I’m sure my upbringing in a third world country helped to give me a few pushes up the ladder, but did I work to climb that ladder? Definitely. Am I going to enjoy the fruits of my labour? Absolutely.

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