Precarious Privilege

A blog post by Holly Hudley

Several people dear to me work at a mostly white, highly regarded, wealthy private school.  It’s not that they love wealth and prestige as much as they are brilliant, curious, and inspired by the students’ commitment to excellence - pretty much a requirement at most private institutions. While the friends I have mostly look like the constituents they teach, they use their privilege to ask questions, create dialogue, and perhaps most importantly, provide meaning in the lives of teenagers. They are people from whom I would feel proud to learn, people in whose hands I would entrust my kids’ minds. 

As an educator and life long learner, both the students and courses I most value are those who have pushed me out of my comfort zone, given me pause and allowed me to stretch past “the way It’s always been done.” These lessons were sometimes painful, sometimes exciting, always expansive. In fact, the etymology of the word educate is educe: to lead out. The image evoked is of moving from a dark cave into the light, the proverbial transformation experience. Educate, a verb, an action word, is defined as giving intellectual, moral, and social instruction to someone, usually a child. 

I bet we can all nod and thrust our pointer fingers into the air and sing a chorus of YESes to that! But there’s a catch...what happens when we can’t agree on morality? What happens when the values of the educators misalign with the parents’ who are paying handsome sums for their kids’ “leading out?” They become attached, of course, to the content of the learning. They want some say and feel entitled to it. I’ve been this parent too. My son got an IB project sent home about ancestry. Question #5 read: Why did your ancestors first come to America and what was their mode of transportation? The answers to these questions are dramatically different depending on whether we focus on my husband’s ancestry or mine. Let’s just say one of us arrived as an explorer, the other as a kidnapped prisoner. It’s not that I think we should shy away from this tension - we shouldn’t and didn’t. The creators of the project, however, hadn’t considered the vast array of possible answers. Wearing my hat as a parent first and educator second, I tried to lead them out, to ask them to consider widening their scope, to not put the onus on my child and other children of color to explain this to the class. They didn’t follow, but said we could handle it with our child however we were comfortable, and couldn’t we just say his ancestors came by boat? The project had no malevolent intent. It was, in fact, a rather hopeful one designed to show that America is made up of many origin stories. It just bypassed a fundamental reality of our story: not everyone begins on equal footing. 

We’ve only recently swallowed the phrase white privilege, turned it over in our mouths, sometimes choked on it and sometimes swallowed it, digested it, and understood it. There are all kinds of blogs and lists online that can tell you whether you suffer from too much privilege; that’s not what I’m writing about. If you have to wonder chances are you probably do and might not know it yet. Try swallowing. It doesn’t hurt as bad as you think. It’s just a reality to accept and contend with and maybe even allow to expand you. 

But if you don’t think you have privilege and you wave away the term, I hope you read this anyway because when it goes unchecked, that’s when it suffocates you and really, everyone. 

I grew up privileged though I did nothing to deserve it. I was just born. As I’ve gotten older that privilege has bloomed into full blown wealth - most of which will be inherited. I remember the moment I realized my particular privilege - or as my dad called it, being part of the lucky sperm club. It was homecoming of my freshman year at a small liberal arts college. My parents and I were invited to a cocktail at the president’s domicile. There were 20-25 families there, 1 or 2 other students I knew. My dad made a joke at some point about this being it? “It” meaning all the kids who could afford the whole cost of school. He probably said something like maybe they need to change their prices. I might be making that bit up but I can imagine it. At her house, standing by the veggie tray, thinking about lifting a free glass of wine, is when I realized how privileged it was that my parents could afford a private college with one check. I was humbled and grateful and embarrassed all at once. I’ll focus a bit on the embarrassment: I had no idea this wasn’t everyone’s reality. I really thought all dads paid for college, that it came along with the job description. I was so naive. My junior year I dated a guy who had to balance soccer, work-study, and school. He worried about money and not running out of meals. When he lived off campus I snuck him into the dining hall. He showered in the locker room to shave pennies off his water bill. He had to petition every semester to keep his financial aid based on grades. The only petition I ever had to make was for the dining hall to keep it’s endless supply of soft serve. 

To be fair, my dad did not feel entitled to direct the school’s instruction or interfere with grading policies. Even if he was a little shocked at some of the progressive, social ideals I was bringing home, he never demanded anything other than I do my best and he’d keep writing checks. He and I are very different - we grew up in different times and were exposed to different realities. The privilege I grew up with afforded me to think beyond having to consider financial security first. Although I can imagine parts of my reality challenged him (it was, at first, hard for him when I announced I was marrying a black man), he values independence and has the intellect to accept change as inevitable. 

I hope by now you have a clear picture of my reality. Financially my experience is better off even than many white folks. Trickier to understand, slower to dawn on me, is the reality of white privilege. I’ve always been comfortable with diversity, craved it even. If you saw a line up of the people I’ve dated and the friends I have, you’d see that. In some ways that fluidity to weave in and out of different social groups is its own kind of privilege. While my genuine spiritual and philosophical belief is that we are all one, I know social optics and our learned implicit biases do not play out this way. Just the other week I asked my husband to go with me to one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in our city to help me remove a sign from the front yard of a client that I’d been asked to redo.  

My thinking: My husband’s a strong guy. There’s no way I can get this sign down by myself. Maybe he’ll help me when he has a day off. 

His thinking: You want me to go to _________  and take a sign out of someone’s front yard. In broad daylight. Is the guy home? He’s not home? Wait. Let me get this straight. Remove a sign, put it in our car, and drive off. I’ll stay in the car until you absolutely need me, and I won’t get out if anyone stops you.

I think I’ve done a lot of work to peel back the layers of my privilege, but I did not even consider the risk he felt doing something to help me, that if we got questioned by neighborhood patrol, I might feel perfectly at ease pulling my cell phone out of my pocket to confirm with the client my permission to be there while my husband would feel perfectly at ease to fear his life with the same gesture. I hate that I didn’t think of this upfront. I want to. It hasn’t been in my bodily reality. Right now, I’m thinking it’s in the reality of every black man in America. Neither perceptions of reality makes it absolute; both are possible. Willingness to see something another way, by the way, is high on the spectrum of personal transformation. That alone allows for more curiosity and compassion to bloom. It’s a single breath, a pause, a question that asks, “Hm. I wonder what it’s like for you.” For the record, my husband did help me, even though he was nervous, and we did not get questioned. But if we’re honest, we know the reality of that possibility was not far fetched. If I had sent him alone, it is practically a given.

I am still learning. I am willing to be “lead out” of my comfort zone, to recognize that my reality is not everyone else’s. Once you see the imbalance of power and privilege, you can’t unsee it. Quite like learning your parents or grandparents had can’t unsee it. But it doesn’t make it less true. While I have hope that the world is heaving a collective sigh and moving in the general direction of progress and inclusion, it is not without resistance. People still use their power and privilege to stop progress. And why not? Change can be scary. It can threaten to pop our space suits and force us to live in an all together new atmosphere. We have to find different ways to breathe. For some that’s terrifying because they live under the wrong assumption that opening the doors to the unknown means they will lose something. Sharing is not losing, however. If you think about your first memory of having to share a favorite toy, it might be painful. Maybe it got broken. Maybe you got to exchange it for your friend or sister’s much cooler toy. Maybe sharing expanded you. I’m certain we’ve all been on the pleading side of wanting someone to share a coveted toy with us. My guess is whether it was a positive or negative experience you learned something of value. And I can be almost 100% certain that if you are a parent, you’ve heard yourself say, “Sharing is caring, honey!” And forced your reluctant kiddo to hand over their train, transformer, or glow in the dark Barbie doll. So what happens when we are asked to share our social position? Is it not also caring? Or does it evoke resistance? What really have we got to lose?

Recently I stood on the periphery of a situation where it looked like a few white people with prestige, power, and money edged out another white person - an educational leader - who had been diligent in his efforts to increase diversity and inclusion in his school.  He hired more people of color, allowed more dialogue and affinity groups, and approved wider demographic changes in the student population. There was no scandal, the board (composed of mostly white current or former parents) consulted neither faculty nor community members. Some stayed silent, at least two were opposed, and others had enough clout to move the needle. Based on a recent survey shared with the school his approval rating hovered around 77%. I don’t need to understand much about math to know that’s a strong majority. (Trump only has an estimated 39% approval rating, and he’s still president.) I’m sure he wasn’t perfect in his execution - people rarely are. It’s a glitch in our human DNA. But the people I know who worked there felt positive about his leadership, even if it triggered some conflict. Those who didn’t feel positive (the 23%, maybe less) pointed to his hires and his principles of accountability as reasons to get rid of him. I hear that at least one of his opposers said, “This man doesn’t advocate for white children.” Being an advocate for students of color does not negate being an advocate for white children. It can be both/and. After all, we live in a shared reality, not a singular one. Others did not like that their children had been held accountable for using unkind, sexist, or racist language as they were “just kids being kids.” Whatever their reasons, the changes were scary for them. It pushed them into an uncomfortable liminal space where they had to share their privileged reality and maybe even accept some personal responsibility. Some slid back into their bubbles. Hopefully others took a tiny wobbly step toward someone else’s. Many people seem to be blindsided by what has happened. I don’t know all the particulars of the situation. Only those who pushed to get him fired can know their own hearts, and then only if they’re willing.

Making decisions in this way, without communication at the expense of others, in the service of certainty and sameness rather than expansion and curiosity, limits our human potential. When the wealthy, powerful few make sweeping decisions for the group to bypass their own discomfort and inner conflict, toxicity festers, resentment grows and like a virus it spreads. The powerful remain under the illusion of control while the group is rendered silent. Neither the control nor the silence lasts, however. As a child who is continually controlled, manipulated or abused grows up to resist, so does an ecosystem crack open to make space for new growth. In the unlikeliest of places, plants always find the light. 

I listened to an Invisibilia podcast the other day on perceptions of reality and implicit bias. One of the guests interviewed said, “Most of us think we are better than we really are....but we live in a world with an unfortunate history that is passed down in concept form from generation to generation...I realize now I can make myself more like what I want to be. If I spend my life denying this other self, then I’m letting my other self operate and influence my behavior...I’m letting myself go through life with blinders. Once you understand that you have this other self, it’s not your enemy. It’s a human part of you.”  

This other self is our best teacher. It can lead us out into the light, offer us more empathy, allow our bubbles to touch and maybe even overlap. I cannot conceive of a possibility where living with more empathy is not better for everyone. We are such a curious species: we came up with space travel, a cure for polio, art, and literature. We explore Mars, the ocean depths, and the Arctic tundra. Surely we can explore the realities of those who live among us, our fellow human travelers, and maybe, just maybe, realize that our deepest wants for safety and belonging are shared.