I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege lately. The other day I spent time with a newly arrived refugee couple, helping them get registered with different social services. The process, like any governmental one, took hours and hours to complete. By the end, I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. I wanted to drive back home, turn on the television and watch something to rid myself of the stress of sitting in a governmental office for so long. As I sat there, stress mounting in my head, I realized the difference from my position to theirs. This was all they had. They had no other choice but to sit in this office relying on an interpreter to relay all the information on how this country works and hoping that they could get money for the day to buy food. I look at governmental meetings and processes as an inconvenience, while they look to it as a way of survival.
Now I want to clarify, this is not going to be a post that trivializes or defines people by their economic or social standing, there is enough poverty porn in the world already and I believe that this only serves to marginalize people further and creates an unintentional hierarchical mindset that “we” are better than “them”. However, there is something to be said about having privilege and access to powers that others do not have and how this affects how we interact.
In the movie Remember the Titans there is a scene where the team is going out to celebrate their victory. Sunshine, the white quarterback from California, tries to bring some of his teammates into a restaurant with him. In the segregated South this does not work and they are all kicked out of the restaurant. What Sunshine fails to do here is to recognize the privilege he has been granted because of his skin color. His experience varies from theirs causing him to assume that the world works a certain way for all, when it does not.
For those interested in racial reconciliation or poverty aid or basic humanitarian work like helping refugees or the homeless, privilege is something we have to consider. We live in different realities with different ways of thinking because of what we are allowed to do. My status as an American gives me many rights when I travel abroad. I may be targeted for theft or scams, but most countries will not want to deal with bad things happening to an American national on their soil. I remember being told when traveling to China that the worst that would happen to me for proselytizing would be getting kicked out “with a smile”. For those living within the country, religion and censorship have much different consequences.
When traveling abroad we are required to get vaccinated against diseases running rampant in other places. We often make preparations in case of emergency to ensure (and we literally insure) that we have access to hospital care or have some sort of escape plan. We are warned not to drink their water or eat their fruit, which is wise advice, but highlights our differences. If we do catch the notorious traveller’s diarrhea, we have back-up plan after back-up plan to get ourselves out of it.
I am not laying this out as a bad thing. If someone were to travel abroad, get a deadly disease, and not seek treatment in order to gain solidarity with the local people, the local people would probably call them stupid. If war enters a country and you have the opportunity to flee danger, why wouldn’t you? I lean on these privileges all the time, getting myself out of situations the refugees, homeless, and others I have met cannot get out of.
When we enter into lower social realities it is like we are joining an ongoing competition to see who can tread water the longest. We see this happening and want to join in. Only when we enter the water, we have a life jacket on. We look at them, asking ‘why they don’t just get a life jacket?’ Some of us give up our own in order that others may have one, those people either slowly drown or call to be rescued, another unique privilege we have in this competition. Privilege is a hard thing to let go of. When the water starts to rise above your neck instinct tells you to grab onto that life jacket, and as stated above, this is not always a bad thing.
I’m not sure where the ethics lie when it comes to the privileged helping those without. There are power dynamics that show themselves in abundance when you enter into this kind of work. Solidarity is a beautiful aim, but social structures can prove hard to shake. And it is not like we did anything to earn any of this. Most of us were born into our skin color, family, country and economic class. Social mobility can take place; that’s the hope of the American dream (if you believe it exists), but change comes slowly, only some can attain it.
How should we use or not use our privilege? How can we empower others? Should we commit to complete solidarity? If not, then what steps can or should we take to doing so?