The Point of Privilege

That’s not me.

We hear stories of privilege and think of old white men in suits sipping on drinks at the bar in their kitchen–but it looks like a real bar, it’s just that big. We think of privilege and we think of CEOs and politicians, those the media has deemed corrupt–might as well toss in a few celebrities, just for for kicks. We say the word privilege and the first thing inevitably to cross our minds is this three-word phrase.

That’s not me.

Privilege exists in many shapes and forms, for many shapes and forms. I’m privileged because I’m white, male, physically capable, marginally handsome, young, a student, employed, et cetera. These are the notions of privilege we tend to speak of it–race and sex seems the whole of the conversation.

No matter the focus, it’s a fact of privilege that privilege is unearned and unrecognized. I’ve always been white–so why would I recognize the privilege that brings me since it’s all I’ve ever known? It’s a lot like asking, “What’s it like to breathe?” It’s such a fundamental part of me, the question seems asinine at best.

But I’m not here to talk about race.

The key assumption in the ASB program is that we’d learn to recognize our unearned privilege that comes from living in the United States. I had no idea what this meant at first–and some days I wonder if maybe I still don’t–but I caught a glimpse of something like this in the ten days I was away.

It wasn’t until much later when I realized this adventure began before we left the moment I walked to Student Health and got vaccinated for all the diseases we might encounter abroad–diseases like typhoid and even malaria. Diseases that we don’t know much about in the U.S. because they’re pretty much unheard of in the United States.

Health. We’ve got it. We might argue over healthcare and subsidies and insurance rates, but at the end of the day, even for the uninsured, typhoid and malaria? Not a big concern.

And don’t even get me started on our living arrangements.

Bol's Guest House, March 2, 2013

We stayed at Bol’s Guest House, a pretty colorful and beautiful place, right? Right. What you don’t see is how seventeen people stayed on the second floor. It might sound like I’m complaining, but I’m not–I loved Bol’s. It felt like home. But not like home in the U.S.

Here we have bedrooms for one, toilets and showers with temperature-controlled water, air conditioning and heat, electricity brighter than the sun, and a plethora of technology from miniscule phones to the massive, ethereal Internet permeating the space around us.

At Bol’s, we had none of this.

We slept easily three or four to a room in beds that were barely the size of our bodies, their wooden frames pushing into our backs, the blankets barely enough to keep out the cold as it seeped into the house at night. I’d wake shivering, clawing for more blankets, only to find none. Not to mention the mosquito net draped over me, not quite the shape of the bed, which meant I had to curl up uncomfortably more often than not.

Again, I’m not complaining. I’m merely describing. Despite the cold and minimal comfort, I rose well-rested every day, and I fell easily to sleep each night. Not having electronic distractions at hand is actually a great way to keep a healthy bedtime.

We like privacy in the U.S., but privacy is a privilege: We had two bathrooms, each with thin walls, so if there was something going on, everyone heard it. Just a fact of life, so we kept calm, moved on. The toilets didn’t have excellent plumbing, though, so we couldn’t actually flush the toilet paper–that was reserved for a bucket to the left. We were able to get a piece of wood to put over it, to help with the smell.

We had access to three showers, but most were hardly more than a cinder block box with a wooden door and a pipe above you. The water was at a constant ice-cold temperature, one too cold to ever actually get used to. Not having hot water makes for a faster shower, but also dryer skin. Everything’s a compromise.

And all of this is a reflection of privilege.

I feel the constant need to keep asserting that these comments are not complaints–far from it they may be, they’re so contrary to what we’re used to in the United States that they just feel negative even when I don’t intend them to be.

And that’s privilege.

We take each of these things for granted–open houses with privacy for all, toilets that flush away everything, comfortable beds and air conditioning–that simply saying you’ve had to go without sounds like complaining, even if it’s all in describing one of the most amazing, significant experiences you’ve ever had.

That’s privilege.

The point isn’t to say “I’ve got this, so let’s get rid of it,” but to recognize that it’s there. No one’s going to strip away–either by want or by capability–every layer of privilege they possess, but we can each recognize how who we are (and sometimes what we are) gives us an unearned advantage over others–and then use it, not to take advantage of others, but to become better people.

It’s hard to define “better people” in a particular sense, since for everyone it’ll be something different. I’m trying to be more cognizant of others, more respectful of our differences and more mindful of the things I’ve been given that maybe others haven’t. But for the others on my trip? For you? The rest of us? There’s no telling.

This is only the beginning of the conversation.

The first step, as they always seem to say, is admitting you have a problem–and though privilege isn’t necessarily a problem, the first step is still recognizing it’s there, it’s ours, and it’s not going away just because we don’t want to deal with it.

My trip to Belize ended months ago, and trying to make sense of privilege–and trying to make sense of what to do with it when it makes sense–is an ongoing adventure. It’s a process, a state of becoming, and it’s a journey that won’t soon end–at least for me.

And though the trip might be over, the question always lingers.

What do I do now? How can I take this experience and make it my life?

How will you?

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