Privilege Highway


Recently I had the chance to visit with a long time friend, colleague and leader in the African American community.  We found ourselves speaking of the urgently needed, but still largely inactive national dialogue on America’s race history and relations.  He told me this story:

“My friend was working with a group of teens at a local high school.  There were black, brown and white students in the group.  My friend had them all stand up in a big circle.  From there, she said this.

  • If you’ve ever been stopped by the police, take a step toward the center of the circle.
  • If you’ve been stopped more than once, take another step.
  • If you’ve been stopped more than five times, take another one.
  • If a family member of yours has ever been arrested take a step into the circle.
  • If you’ve ever been arrested, take a step in.
  • If you have a family member who has been killed by the police, take a step into the center of the circle.

The youth moved in response, and the illustration was irrefutable.”

I had a discussion that same day with a white woman in her 20’s.  Over the course of the discussion, this story came up.  So did the word, “privilege.”

She balked.

“It feels like being told I’m broken and bad and have little chance of being seen as a person worthy of trust.”  My thought:  “How can we stay in the conversation?”

I kept talking, drawing on thoughts likes these.

Having privilege isn’t about being broken, it’s not about being bad.  But privilege is terribly vulnerable to being invisible to those who have it.  And coming to see privilege is almost always a choice.  People who have privilege don’t have to see it  Back in 1994, I wrote that it’s harder to say no to privilege than to oppression.  And it is HARD to say no to oppression – mostly because it’s dangerous.

But, privilege resides in having easier access.  It’s in being far less likely to be arbitrarily followed by law enforcement professionals – or even in-store security. It’s in being more likely to be heard than ignored.  It’s in being drawn into the more rigorous classroom conversation, turned to for serious input on community development and policy.

Having privilege isn’t about being broken.  It’s about responsibility.  Responsibility for placing both value and energy in real conversations about race, its history and the persistence of race-based inequities.  And actually being in the conversation takes a certain humility.  It also takes curiosity.

The humility is in the willingness to admit you may not have it right about another person, about people of another race.  Or, for that matter, economic class, or language, or religion, or region of the country, or ….  Curiosity is in taking the position of really wanting to know another person’s worldview without getting defensive (i.e. scared) at the fact that their way of seeing is different from yours.

Tomorrow, I get in a rental truck with my daughter to move her to New Jersey for an exciting new job.  And this is where all of our privilege gets very real.

We can’t say what experiences we’ll have along the way.  But, even though neither of us is very skilled with driving 12 foot trucks across country, it is extremely unlikely that an offense of minor laws governing automobile operation will land either of us (1) in jail, or (2) dead.

Today that is irrefutable white privilege.

Sandra Bland’s death matters.  She is a relative to every single one of us.  She is our sister.  We must talk about these things.  Now.

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4 Comments on “Privilege Highway

  1. The extent to which I am able to see my privilege carries with it the responsibility to reach back for those without it.

  2. Mary, I have been thinking about this so much all summer, because of the recurring heart-breaking news concerning the deaths and injuries of black citizens in this country who live a much more dangerous, much less protected, life than I do, simply because of race and our blindness/hostility around it. Charleston broke my heart, and the death of Sandra Bland made me imagine how I might feel if I was her mother. Thank you for continuing to write about this life and death concern.

  3. Thank you for keeping up the steady drum beat, calling on white people to acknowledge our privilege; and encouraging us to approach questions about privilege with honest curiosity and responsibility. Yours is an important voice of our times.

  4. Your friend’s story about the youth in a circle was very telling to my and illuminative I hope to others. I was in an all black men’s bible class 15 years ago while living in New Jersey. I was the only one of 17 men in the class that had never been pulled over on The Garden State Parkway. Since I worked in Manhattan, and took trains mostly, I had little reason to be on the Garden State Parkway. I went back up last April to visit my old church. While driving up from Philly to Newark, NJ, I noticed lots of people passing me, but only one black driver pass me. I litterly laughed out loud when I realized the driver was from Flordia. Evidently the black drivers male from New Jersey and the neighboring states had gotten the message.

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