Posted by: MC | January 29, 2011

Seeing Privilege

It’s going to take a while.  I don’t want to speak
for blacks, but from my perspective being a black
man with what I have observed in my lifetime,
I will feel as though I’m going to be shortchanged
because of the history behind us.  I will feel that
until I see some definite improvement.  If  they
tell you that you can be equal, but you never
make any gains, you’re going to say,
“Nothing has changed.”

Nick Minnis    1-29-2009

Yesterday I reread the interview with Emilia Lopez.  We were in the dining room of her home on Long Island.  It was the middle of March, 2009.  She said, “The everyday realities of race and class just don’t go away.”

I’m reviewing every interview to find the parts that have the most to say to people who will read You Say Change…We Say. These days I’m shortening the tentative title to We Say for ease of reference, and because this collection of American words is all about that – our voices as individuals and the way they harmonize, when they do, into a message more powerful because of its consensus.

The excerpting process is not easy.  Most of what each person said holds insight and consequence.  At the same time, finding the center of each conversation has begun revealing harmonies that otherwise were too masked.  What Emilia put into words echoed across the country.

Emilia is a professor.  She was born and lived her childhood in Cuba.  She is a mother and daughter and she is a scholar with profound effect on the knowledge we have about supporting the learning of children who are culturally and language diverse.  Like all of the voices of EX:Change, she spoke out of the experiences of her life.

We had cleared the table after dinner and sat down again with tea.  “The first thing that comes to my mind,” she began, “is changing the way we think about each other, the way that we get along with each other.  But, I’m not very optimistic; my voice is not going to be an optimistic voice.”

“There are huge differences in how people feel about their ability to achieve fundamental things.  Things like education or a level of well being that comes from knowing you have a good job and can live in a community where you and your family will be okay.  There are many people whose experience is they can’t get those things.  There are others who feel they can easily get them.  Those are very different paths and it is very difficult to talk honestly across those differences.  It would be a start if people of privilege even wanted to talk about it. That would mean really opening to listen carefully to what the people who have had limited access have to say. Too often the attribution is, ‘It’s your fault.  You haven’t worked hard enough.  You’re not committed.’”

The challenge Emilia sees goes both ways.  There must be listening.  Before that, there must be recognition and humility in the face of privilege.  It is true that we all have privileges – like being in these lives, drawing breath, dreaming dreams.  With good fortune we love and are loved.  Kindness follows.  All of that is privilege.  There is also privilege that comes and is then sustained at a cost to others.  The difficulty at the core of Emilia’s concern is in how hard it is for the benefactors of that privilege to see, admit and act to dismantle it.

Really?  Why would anyone want to say no to privilege?

To be a citizen of the United States is to enjoy more privilege than a huge portion of the world.  All of us have things to consider around privilege and in matters of race.  The most difficult challenge falls to people who have benefited from being closest to the centers of power and influence – mostly white people with education and money.

Gotta say, it’s not useful to get categorical and go to some absolute negative judgment about “All” white people with education and money.  It’s not that easy.  I mean, even though perhaps we ought to, people don’t generally pick up the courage to look at the way their lives affect others when they feel under fire.

That’s where listening and speaking come in.  That’s where getting the words of the 100 Americans out for the consideration takes on importance.  There’s a lot to be said about privilege.  Listening to the lives of other people can go a long way to helping us all of us with the first step of awareness.   Here are a few quotes I ran across this week that also speak to the persistence of racism and possibilities for its dismantling.

Susan S (PA):  “I was a freshman in 1967-68.  The college I attended had recruited its highest proportion of African American students.  From when we got there until Spring Break, there were the beginnings of a real conversation about race.  There’s that quote in the Bible about don’t talk to your friend about the speck in his eye until you can address the log in your own.  I think people appreciated that and were really present to the discussion.  Then, over Spring Break, Martin Luther King was assassinated.  We came back to campus and black people were eating at black tables and white people were eating at white tables.”

Art G  (OR):  Then there’s ethnic differences and racism.  People try to say it’s better.  On TV they try to make it sound better, but living on the streets it seems to me that things are still the same.  Prison is full of it.  The Department of Corrections itself encourages it by segregating by race.  They put the black with the black, the Mexicans with the Mexicans.  They separate by gang affiliations.  They do that so they’ll keep the prisoners at each other and not at them.”

Kelvin A (GA):  “White male has to acknowledge his role in and responsibility for the messed up values of our country in order for white female, black female, black male to actually have equal opportunity.  White male is going to have to acknowledge his role in making a change for everyone else.  His role is so large that it’s amazing.  He can definitely affect the rest of us through the policies he makes.”

Se-ah-dom E (OR):  “People in the dominant culture will be forced to walk their talk until they realize their talk is their value system and their walk is important and good for everyone.  Everybody wants to believe they’re good and that they make good decisions.   But there are many people who unconsciously resist and work against wanting under-represented people to really have opportunity and education toward professional roles.  Those people benefit from unearned privilege they don’t see.  Of course, they don’t want to give up the spots they feel they’re entitled to.”

Tommie C (GA):  “We cannot heal as long as we have one side that wants to blame another side for what they’ve done to us.  Until both parties are willing to admit their part of it, we’re going to have racial tension, especially in the South.  We still have KKK in the South.  It’s strong and it’s very prevalent.  Alone none of us totally controls going into the future, but together we’ve got a good path ahead of us.”

The EX:Change continues.


  1. Seems like an edifice hankerin’ for a crumble…

    What an amazingly difficult topic to deal with.

  2. I continue on this great journey–seeking the truth which I know for sure would set me free. I even pray constantly to know what makes any human being free–the truth–nothing but the truth. But– of course ‘the truth is in the eyes of beholder.’ I’m seeking the truth. I want to be free. ‘Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life, but one who rejects a rebuke goes astray. Lying lips conceal hatred, and whoever utters slander is a fool.’-Hebrew words. I’m on this journey–a serious journey to know the truth. I want to be free.

  3. I wonder why! I’m here. What’s the matter? It is only one human race. One spirit, One village–the global village. We are here together.Period.

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