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In America We're Pro-Choice: We Largely Choose Our Ultimate Privilege

May 18 2014, 12:50am CDT | by

Right now there’s a broad spectrum of sentiment toward “privilege.” The Harvard Kennedy School, my alma mater, is reportedly requiring a new privilege awareness training for incoming students. A...

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10 weeks ago

In America We're Pro-Choice: We Largely Choose Our Ultimate Privilege

May 18 2014, 12:50am CDT | by

Right now there’s a broad spectrum of sentiment toward “privilege.” The Harvard Kennedy School, my alma mater, is reportedly requiring a new privilege awareness training for incoming students. A popular quiz from Upworthy asks users to ponder their demography in hopes of generating empathy for the disadvantaged. On the opposite end of the privilege paradigm is Tal Fortgang, a Princeton freshman who wrote a defiant essay  on “checking privilege” as a white male.

As a former Kennedy School orientation leader, I respect the vantage point of the students who petitioned for this training. Too often, privileged people are enveloped in a cocoon of blissful incognizance. It’s helpful if these dialogues develop heightened self-awareness and desire to empower others to similar privilege.

But these discussions lack the understanding that we can create our own privilege, regardless of our beginnings. There is no finite stock of privilege. In a related conversation about the roots of poverty and inequality, the questions remain: At what point does privilege become your own instead of others? Do we not all carry privilege and burden? To trailblaze with groundbreaking impact–instead of using Daddy’s trust fund to play dilettante–don’t we all face tremendous adversity, no matter our starting point?

Fortgang spoke of his Polish Jewish ancestors’ poignant struggling to endure Holocaust persecution. He spoke of his grandfather’s entrepreneurial spirit that enabled his comfortable upbringing, unashamed of his parents’ educational opportunities that later inspired his own. He concludes, “I have checked my privilege. And I apologize for nothing.”

Everybody’s got baggage in their family tree. Some of my ancestors were Irish immigrants, victims of a xenophobic, Anglo-dominated American society where signs snarked “Help Wanted: No Irish Need Apply.” In 1960s London, the sentiment was “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish.”

Other ancestors perished as they caravanned across the plains, religious refugees driven to the barren desert of Utah territory. They were pushed out of multiple states by violent, anti-Mormon bigots. In Missouri, for example, it was legal to kill a Mormon until 1976 by executive fiat known as the Extermination Order from then-Gov. Lilburn Boggs in 1838, an edict on the books for over a century.

Utah wasn’t a state when the Mormons arrived in 1847, instead an arid wasteland at the frontier of America’s borders. There was no privilege there in the harsh, unforgiving desolation. Yet this didn’t keep the Mormons down: today Utah is a state with a well-educated, prosperous populace boasting Aaa-rated bonds. This happy ending does not excuse the Mormons’ horrid treatment, but they realized they couldn’t live in Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, New York or Pennsylvania without facing molestation. They comprehended their lack of privilege, and they conquered it.

My heritage is typical in human history. Science tells us, and I’ve yet to see convincing evidence otherwise, that all humanity emerged from the same algae-like slime. From there, our species evolved into various tribes, each from the universally unprivileged ooze. There has never been a civilization without war, famine, and natural disaster. Yet Western flourishing came to pass by no accident, rather through behaviors that are fast becoming relics in some communities: industriousness, frugality, piety, the centrality of marriage and the nuclear family.

The Upworthy quiz identifies whiteness with privilege. Sadly, this is true. It’s tragic that racism is a reality, something we must fight in every instance. But ultimately we cannot regulate human emotion. We can push for cultural change and equality of opportunity and encourage those who bear the ugly brunt of racism to rise above it.

I attended middle schools east of Troost Avenue in Kansas City, Missouri, where most of my classmates were black or Hispanic. For some classmates, “acting white” meant you did your homework and didn’t pick fistfights. Later on, I graduated high school in the white, poverty-striken, Ozark mountains region of southwestern Missouri, where one function of “acting white” meant you dropped out of school because you were pregnant or cooking meth. The negative societal outcomes of poor Ozark whites cannot be blamed on institutional racism.

At a macro level, scholars document how cultural pathologies in poor, non-white urban areas are similar to those in poor, white rural areas. Many societal problems correlate with class instead of race, and these behaviors are choices. “We are what we repeatedly do,” Aristotle said. “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” By this logic, the converse rings true: failure is often not a single act but a series of corrosive decisions that erode future options. Self-sabotage is the enemy of privilege.

To a large extent, privilege and poverty stem from a series of decisions; this is true in empirical and commonsensical ways. As the New York City government pointed out in a public service campaign: “If you finish high school, get a job, and get married before having children, you have a 98% chance of not being in poverty.”

We’re not talking about mentally disabled or involuntarily unemployed individuals. Poverty among full-time workers is exceptionally low. This was particularly illustrative during the economic boom of the Clinton era, where jobs were plentiful and welfare reforms ensured able-bodied people receiving public assistance eventually found work. This lifted them out of poverty and away from government dependence. Over time, the Clinton reforms passed by the Republican Revolution Congress faded from public consciousness, but Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and others are reviving this push to empower the underprivileged.

If privilege can be cultivated through a series of choices, then I’m all for “checking it,” and then promoting it. Gen. Colin Powell’s rule that “After Thirty Days You Own The Sheets” allows incoming military commanders to blame their predecessors, including for bed sheet problems in the barracks, for 30 days. After that grace period, accountability rests with them.

At some point, we own our pathologies. We can accept that our parents’ and friends’ negative choices are not ours. We can embrace or reject involuntary exposure to dysfunction. We are privileged to make these choices each day.

 
Update
10

7 weeks ago

RM47mil KWSG contributions still unclaimed

Jun 9 2014 7:54am CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR: About RM47 million of contributions in the Teachers Provident Fund (KWSG) still remain unclaimed, the Dewan ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
Update
9

7 weeks ago

Gold shop lost almost RM1mil

Jun 9 2014 3:50am CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

KANGAR: A gold shop owner lost almost RM1 million after after the safe on in his shop was br ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
Update
8

7 weeks ago

Motion to debate MAS losses in Dewan Rakyat rejected

Jun 9 2014 3:39am CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR: AN emergency motion to debate the losses incurred by Malaysia Airlines last year, amounting to RM1.2 billion was rejected by the Dewan Raky ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
Update
7

7 weeks ago

MH370 Tragedy: Hisham: RM27.6 mil spent on 1st phase of SAR

Jun 9 2014 2:11am CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia spent some RM27.6 million in its first phase of the search operations for missing Malaysia Airline flight MH370, said Acting Transport Mini ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
Update
6

7 weeks ago

9.1m litres of diesel seized in a month

Jun 8 2014 1:11am CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

PUTRAJAYA: The Domestic Trade, Cooperatives, and Consumerism ministry has seized some 9.1 million litres of diesel and property worth RM58 million since mounting ‘Operasi Diesel Selatan’ in the sou ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
Update
5

7 weeks ago

Girl, 9, awarded RM2.78m compensation for medical negligence

Jun 6 2014 4:56am CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR: A nine-year-old girl who suffered brain damage during her birth at a government hospital was awarded over RM2.78 million in compens ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
Update
4

8 weeks ago

Malaysia's total trade in April up 12pc

Jun 5 2014 11:52pm CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia's total trade in April 2014 rose by 12 per cent from a year ago to RM123.86 billion due to growing trading activities, International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
Update
3

8 weeks ago

Works Ministry to spend RM20m for upgrading works at 50 accident black spots

Jun 4 2014 11:35pm CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

JOHOR BARU: The Works Ministry will implement upgrading works at 50 accident prone locations in the country that have been identified this year involving an allocation of RM2 ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
Update
2

8 weeks ago

Najib launches loan scheme for Ramadan traders

Jun 4 2014 10:24pm CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

PUTRAJAYA: Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak today launches RM45 million Ramadan Bazaar Scheme 2 ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
Update
1

8 weeks ago

Residents bring up objection against Kidex to Suhakam

Jun 4 2014 4:49am CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

PETALING JAYA: A group of 20 Petaling Jaya residents held a meeting with the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) over their objection against the proposed RM2.2 billion Kinrara Dam ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 

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