I have lived a relatively comfortable life. Growing up, my parents provided a great deal of stability for me. I never had to wonder where my next meal was going to come from. I didn’t have to work because I wasn’t responsible for much other than my schoolwork and staying out of trouble. When I graduated high school, I went to college without paying a dime out of my own pocket, and then I did the same with graduate school. My education and work opportunities prepared me to transition smoothly into the work force where I am currently earning a decent living that allows me to own a home and build equity in it while also investing money for retirement.
In short, I am privileged. And I think it’s time to be completely honest about it.
This is a topic that I’ve been pondering for a very long time. It might have been more appropriate to call this article “Privilege (Part One)” because I’m positive that this isn’t the last I’ll have to say on it. The truth is that I feel completely inadequate to speak into an issue so important and nuanced, but the more I reflect on this subject, the more I feel compelled to speak out on it.
As I’ve said before, it is so incredibly easy for each of us to assume that our lives are the norm, that everyone else experiences the world the same way that we do. I once thought that myself. But that simply isn’t true, and the first step to understanding the concept of privilege is recognizing the ways that one’s experience differs from those of others.
The older I get, the more I realize how fortunate I am to have grown up in the circumstances I did. Because at every turn, I was experiencing privilege. I was given the circumstances, resources, and opportunities to grow, thrive, and become all that I could be. Meanwhile, many around me were not being afforded those same privileges, and I couldn’t even see it.
Below is a list of just some of the privileges I’ve enjoyed in my young life:
My family didn’t move a lot growing up, which means my education and social life were mostly uninterrupted throughout my childhood.
I always had access to plentiful, healthy food, which allowed my physical and mental development to proceed to the fullest extent. It also meant that I could focus in school and earn good grades.
My neighborhood growing up was safe, which meant that I could play outside and maintain an active lifestyle.
I didn’t have to work in high school, so I had plenty of time to study, complete homework, and develop meaningful, lifelong friendships.
My parents encouraged me in my studies, even helping me when I struggled. My whole life, they told me that I could achieve anything I set my mind to, including getting into college. And I believed them.
I have a knack for learning and test-taking. This is in no way an indication of merit or hard work on my part. I’m just good at it.
My school offered extra-curricular activities, which allowed me to explore my talents and build life skills. They looked great on college applications, too.
I had a plethora of adults in my life—teachers, church members, and family friends—who mentored me, encouraged me, and gave me opportunities to learn and grow.
Money was rarely (though not never) an issue in my family. My parents taught me to treat money like a tool and showed me through their examples how to use it and relate to it well. Budgeting, saving, debt avoidance, and generosity were principles instilled in me from a young age.
That may seem like an unnecessarily long list, but I assure you that I could go on. You may be reading this list and thinking, “What’s the big deal? I had all of that growing up, too. Everyone does.” If so, I’ll tell you this: You are, like me, extremely privileged. Be thankful.
Because though these may seem like basic things that every person should have access to, the truth is that many, many do not. And these privileges—which only certain people are given—set us up for success later in life.
Am I saying that people who don’t have these privileges can’t be successful? Of course not. Am I saying that anyone who grows up privileged is definitely going to get ahead? No, I’m not. What I am saying is that the privileges I’ve been afforded have made it much easier for me to succeed in life than someone who doesn’t have those same privileges.
It’s like if life were a race, I was given a head start, or better equipment to run with. And it’s not like I deserved it or even asked for it; I just got it. And my whole life, I’ve been relying on that extra boost to help get me where I want to go.
I can’t imagine being where I am without those privileges. Would I have gotten into college if I hadn’t been told my whole life that it was a possibility for me? Or if I had to work to support my family instead of focusing on school? What about if had a disability I was trying to overcome on top of everything else? Sure, there are people who do a lot more with a lot less, but I’m not sure that I’m strong enough to be one of them. For whatever reason, I never had to find out.
By the way, I haven’t even mentioned two other major aspects of privilege that I enjoy: I am a white man. Both my race and my biological sex afford me privileges that I would not otherwise have access to. Though we try to convince ourselves that we as a society no longer judge people by their race or sex, one simple flip through the newspaper or newsfeed proves differently. Our world is still set up to favor white men, and though I wish it weren’t that way, I do still benefit from it.
Coming from a sheltered upbringing, I never realized how unique my experience was until I became an adult and saw the world for myself. I met people of different socioeconomic backgrounds, from different races and ethnic groups, and even from different countries. And the more people I met who were different from myself, the more I understood the depth of privilege I have received.
I’ve met people who have no idea where their next meal is coming from. People who’ve been beaten down until they believe that they are nothing. People who face oppression and bigotry on a daily basis. And people who repeat the broken cycles of family mistakes because they don’t have any way of knowing life can be different for them.
And in meeting these people—many of whom I love dearly—I’ve come to see myself in a new light. There’s absolutely no difference at a fundamental level between myself and them. I’m no better than them, no more deserving than they are. There’s no reason that I should have received the privileges I did while they were forced to face life without them. The only difference between them and me is that by chance, I started off in a different place than they did.
I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t set up the systems that created it. It’s not my fault that things are this way. But I benefit from it every single day, sometimes in ways that actively harm others. Often in ways that go against my basic beliefs and principles. That is my privilege.
We’ve all heard it said that ignorance is bliss. And in the case of privilege, that is certainly true. Whereas before, I was able to live my life believing the world was fair and that everyone else had the same chance at success that I had, now I know the truth. Everything I have is in some way connected to the privileges that were afforded to me earlier in life. Even now, the same privileges are still working in my favor while others suffer without them. This is a hard truth to live with.
Unchecked and unconsidered, privilege is a blessing. But once you recognize it for what it is and look it straight in the face, privilege is ugly. It’s a beast that takes from those who don’t have enough and gives to those who already have more than they could ever need. It silences the oppressed and convinces those who benefit from it that they deserve it. That they’re somehow better than others. That their privilege is their right. And that simply is not true.
No privilege is a right unless it’s guaranteed to everyone. And the sad truth is that there are many people in our world who have little more than nothing. Don’t they deserve the same things everyone else does? Aren’t they just as human as everyone else? What right do we have to feel entitled to things that others can only wish for?
I’ve come to see my privilege as a burden, and I bear it every day. It’s nothing compared to the burdens borne by those who are struggling to survive, but it weighs on me nonetheless. It reminds me constantly of the suffering in the world and forces me to question the comfortable complacency that I so easily fall into. My privilege is a moral quandary that I am constantly turning over in my head and trying fruitlessly to solve.
What am I to do with this privilege? I can hardly give it up, at least not all of it, because I can’t change who I am or where I come from. Nor should I. I’m thankful for the privileges I’ve been given. The problem isn’t necessarily that I’ve been given too much. The problem is that others haven’t been given enough. So while I can’t undo the privilege I’ve been given, I can do my best to use it to lift others up.
I dream of a day when everyone is afforded the privileges I have. There’s more than enough to go around. It’s just going to take more people waking up to their privilege and choosing to use it for the sake of others. If I can take what I’ve been given and use it to make life better for my fellow human beings, then I consider that a worthwhile use of what I’ve been blessed with. I don’t want to waste it.
What does that look like? For me, it’s taken different forms. It’s meant being there for children in my life who don’t always have the positive adult influences they need. It’s meant being patient with people who need time to learn things I was fortunate enough to be taught long ago. It’s meant working with those in need on becoming independent. It’s meant loaning without expecting a payback and giving with as much generosity as I can afford. It’s meant giving people rides, giving people second chances, and simply hearing people out.
Checking my privilege has meant all of that and more, and I do it not because I’m particularly good or because I want to be praised. I do it because I’ve been given a lot, so I believe that I’m expected to give a lot to others.
Jesus taught as much. He said, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be expected” (Luke 12.48). For me, that expectation includes constantly checking my privilege and making sure that I’m using it to help those who don’t have it. It’s a process that will take me my entire life to master, but I’m trying, and I’m always open to listening to those who can teach me ways of doing it better.
How about you? Do you have privilege that you haven’t recognized yet? Now is the time to do so. No matter where we come from, most of us have been given some kind of privilege that others have not. Once we choose to see it, then we can start the process of learning how to use it to help others who haven’t been so fortunate. I believe that’s the only way we’ll see this world become a better place for everyone.
In my faith tradition, we say that God is in the business of redeeming the world. What that means is that God isn’t going to undo the brokenness of the world. Instead, he’s going to heal it, and he’s working through us to make it happen. I think that this is a part of it.
We can’t undo the injustices and disparities in the world today, but we can pick up the broken pieces and use our influence to turn them into something beautiful for everyone. When we do that, we’re taking part in God’s redeeming work. And I can’t think of any better use for the privileges I’ve been given.
I was given an unfair advantage in life. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true. It’s taken me a long time to recognize it, but now that I have, I’m trying to use that privilege to help others, because I believe I can use it to make the world at least a little bit better. And I believe that you can do the same. We each have the opportunity to use our privilege for the greater good if we only choose to. Will you?