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.