Wednesday, April 27, 2011

My Privilege

A few weeks ago, the sermon at church focused on privilege and it has stayed with me since then, both theoretically and personally.

As the lay speaker noted, sociologists say “we look forward or sideways, not backwards, when we evaluate our social status.” In other words, we look where we want to be, we look where we are and how we stack up. We don't think about those we aren't trying to emulate or surpass. But these people, he noted, make up the majority of the world. He asked us to imagine lining up the world's population, from most privileged to least. Who would be at the end of the line? Women; people who are illiterate; people who live in countries where leaders are not elected; people who don't have $5 a day; people who aren't white and don't speak English. In other words, no one sitting in our church that day.

We are the privileged, even when we don't realize it because we are too concerned about privileges and status we don't have. The speaker talked about our culture, focused on individualism and competition, which allows us to credit our privilege to luck or hard work. In turn, it allows us to blame those who aren't as privileged for being lazy or unlucky. He quoted Diane Goodman, in her book Promoting Diversity and Social Justice: “The more people are self-oriented, feel responsible for their own survival, and become obsessed with their success, the more they see others as competitors….As a result, it is easier to turn one’s back on people who are oppressed.”
How, then, do we become aware of our own privilege and work for justice for the underprivileged? The speaker mentioned three motivations for this: empathy, morality, and self-interest. Yes, self-interest, or recognizing how eliminating the advantages of privilege helps everyone.

It was then that I recognized, truly, our privilege. I often think of myself in terms of my volunteering. But, where do I volunteer? At a local historical society because I enjoy it. At my kids' school, to make their school better. At church to help the congregation. All of these solidify my own privilege and that of my family and friends. It does nothing to help people who truly need help.

In only one way can I see that I help the wider community, beyond frequent petition signing and charitable donations: I am a public school Democrat. We have the resources and opportunity to either send our children to expensive private schools or to homeschool them. But we opt for public schools for one main reason: we realize that our kids will not grow up in a vacuum but in a community and the best way to ensure the health of the community is to help all of its members. And education of children is the best way to do that,as studies have shown that education combats poverty, crime, poor health, and other ills. By being involved in the public schools, which are under attack during this budget crisis, we hope to ensure the best education for our whole community. Of course, this is in our own self-interest and, at times, our resolve wavers and we think about our other options, because we selfishly wonder about risking the quality of our children's education for social justice. But, as a recent article in the NYTimes noted, “paradoxically, the kind of parents who follow debates about parenting — typically more affluent and educated — are those who may have the least to worry about" (see Motherlode, too). Of course, the article continues, "But there is a group for whom the debate is really important: low-income parents." The people behind us in the privilege line. And so our own self-interest motivates us to look beyond our privilege. I hope.

I now see our privilege everywhere, most tangibly in my recent back injury. My partner could take time off to care for me. Because of good insurance, and our ability to meet the co-pay, I can see a renown specialist in back pain in NYC. We can afford the medicines, the home medical equipment. My mom could come for an extended visit to support us. We can afford an almost-full time nanny while I recover. And, because my partner has an understanding and generous work place, she can take time off, and even beyond that, afford that I'm a stay-at-home mom, so that I'm not missing work right now on top of it all. Even more complexly, though, you might say my back injury is the result of privilege because were I in the back of the proverbial line, I would have stronger back muscles because of constant labor.

And so privilege is before me, in more ways than one, and I won't just say that we are lucky or that we've worked hard; I won't deny that it is privilege based on where, when, and to whom we were born and by whom we were raised and that our kids will be privileged for those same reasons. I don't mean to brag about this privilege, just to confront it, realize it, acknowledge it.

Which brings me, of all places, to Gwyneth Paltrow. There's a lot of online dissing of Paltrow, of her GOOP newsletter for upperclass women, of her UK Elle quote "I am who I am. I can’t pretend to be somebody who makes $25,000 a year," and, most recently her interview with Popeater, "I think my work ethic is the reason why I'm successful. I think that a lot of people don't want to put in effort and it's easier to not change, not do something good for you... [They're just] pissed off at someone else doing that. Everything in my life that's good is because I worked my ass off to get it and to maintain it." Keli Goff, of Huffington Post, recently took Paltrow to task:

this interview finally made me understand why she engenders such enmity among so many. It's not because she's pretty and talented (okay, that may be part of it). It's because, like a lot of privileged people, she's under the delusion that she earned everything that she has, and then has the audacity to gloat about it.

In an age in which America's class-divide is greater than it's ever been, our patience has simply waned for the George W. Bushes and Gwyneth Paltrows of the world -- people who were born on third base and act like they hit a triple. America was founded on the idea that everyone has equal opportunity to carve out their piece of the American Dream, but increasingly that's becoming less and less of a reality. And there's something infuriating about listening to people born into the Dream -- silver rattle in one hand, silver spoon in the other -- lecture the rest of us on how easy it is to obtain -- if we're just willing to "work our asses off" like they do.

Now, I like some of Paltrow's movies, have little interest in her website, and have loved her on "Glee." I don't know her, don't know what she's really like, don't know what she does for charities, and recognize that tabloids like to create news and controversy and of course outright fabrications. But Goff's discussion of privilege focuses on the idea that the sermon did: some of us in the front of the line don't always look back and don't recognize what our privilege really is.

I want to look back. I want to think of ways to share my privilege, think about ways that I can engage in the social justice so central to my faith. As the speaker at church noted, justice comes up twice in the UU principles. We affirm and promote:
2. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
What's important to me? What can I do? And I realize that it's food. Good food, plentiful food, for everyone. Food shared at the dinner table to promote stronger families. Food given to school children so they can concentrate in class. Food for families who have to decide between meals and rent. Food for people who don't get a meal a day. From better school lunches to the local food pantry, from Share Our Strength and similar organizations to buying local and fair trade and organic to help food producers locally and global, being aware of all of these issues and reflecting them in our shopping and eating. Helping people have food will be my privilege.

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