My family was one of the wealthier families in the town where I grew up. It feels weird to say it so bluntly—I always felt embarrassed by our affluence. I didn’t like it. I was extremely self-conscious about our big house, our nice cars, and the fact that we took regular family vacations. I was afraid that other kids didn’t like me because my family had things that they didn’t have.
At first, my embarrassment at my family’s relative wealth seems a bit strange, mostly because I had nothing to do with its existence. I didn’t do anything to earn the money that we had; my dad would have been successful whether or not I had been born. I guess that’s why I always felt embarrassed—I knew I had something that lots of people in my community did not have, but I didn’t deserve any of it. I was born in this family, and everything I possessed came from this one simple fact.
Now imagine that we live in a much larger version of my hometown—everybody has something that someone else does not have, whether they know it or not. The people did not earn what they have, they did not choose to have it, but it is theirs nonetheless. The word for this is privilege.
Over the past couple years, I’ve been exploring this concept (privilege), and I realize that this is exactly what I experienced during my youth. My family’s wealth and success made me feel guilty because most people did not have what we had.
I’m writing this blog series (“Them”) on empathy and seeing the “other” in a more humane light, and one of the main concepts that keeps rising to the surface is this word: privilege.
I know some people prefer to deny the very existence of privilege because it makes us feel like we haven’t earned anything in our lives—as if every single thing has arbitrarily either been given to us or denied us and we simply live in a world that was pre-constructed without our consent. “I worked hard to get what I have,” we might say, which is a totally valid point.
I’m 35 years old, and my privilege has only gotten me so far:
My privilege got me into college, but it didn’t pass my classes for me.
My privilege got me my first job, but it didn’t make me good at it.
My privilege helped me buy a house, but it did not fill it with a loving family.
Privilege does not negate your hard work. Acknowledging the existence of privilege does not deny your contributions and your sacrifices—it merely recognizes that there are lots of people who were born with certain disadvantages that you were not.
If I am to feel empathy for someone else’s struggles, I first need to accept the fact that their life has not been the same as mine. Their relationships with their parents, jobs, finances, religion, doctors, the police, teachers, and countless other elements have been (at least somewhat) different from mine; their experiences are unlike my own. As a result, people who are different than I am are sure to have a slightly (if not dramatically) different interpretation of life than I do. In other words, empathy begins when I recognize that someone has struggled in ways that I will never understand—and my lack of struggle—in any form—is called privilege.
I should also say here the privilege, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. You can’t be blamed for what you cannot control. That said, you can be held responsible for what you do with it.
So how do I know if I have privilege? What criteria are we using to measure this somewhat nebulous concept? As it turns out, there are a lot:
If you are male
If you are white
If you do not have a physical or mental disability
If you were raised by both biological parents
If you have no immediate family members who have ever been incarcerated
If a parent stayed home with you during the day
If your parents regularly took you to the doctor and/or dentist
If a relative or family friend ever gave you a job
If you’ve ever flown on an airplane
If you ever had swim lessons
If you lived near a supermarket that sold fresh produce
If you participated in organized sports
If you have never been called a racial slur
If you never had to lie to your parents / your friends / your church about your sexuality
There are, of course, many others.
Here’s the point: You have at least some amount of privilege in your life. And just like me when I was a kid, you had nothing to do with the natural advantages that you were given—or at least, the absence of certain disadvantages.
You aren’t wrong for having what you have, but you are responsible for what you do with it.
In the Bible, there is a passage in which a guy named Paul is writing to a young pastor named Timothy. At a certain point, Paul begins talking about how Timothy is to interact with the wealthier members of his community (read: people with the greatest amounts of privilege). This is what he says:
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1 Timothy 6:17-19)
What are the people in the early church told to do with their privilege? They aren’t told to ignore it or to deny its existence (and they certainly aren’t called to defend the fact that they earned it)—they are called to “do good” with it.
I couldn’t control my family’s wealth in our small town, but I could control how I treated people. I could share when it was in my power to share; I could give when it was in my power to give. I could recognize that some of my friends didn’t have as much as I did, and I could allow for the possibility that this fact made their lives—at least at certain times—a little harder than mine.
Without this acknowledgement and a willingness to do good with our privilege, our empathy will always be shallow at best and nonexistent at worst.
I wonder how much more we could do for others in this world if we stopped living in denial about what we have and started using it as a tool to make the world a better place.
If you have a voice, you can use it to speak for someone who does not.
If you have resources, you can use them to ease someone else's burden.
If you have space, you can use to offer safety to someone who has been physically or emotionally displaced.
If you have love, you can offer it to someone who has never experienced love before.
May we acknowledge what we have and use it to do good for others.