The Circumstance of Privilege

It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve heard the term “White Privilege”.  In fact, the first time was at an event where a speaker was introduced as an organizer for a White Privilege Conference.  My reaction was, “Hey, there’s a conference where I can get privilege?  That’s cool.”  I turned to the podium to see an African-American man and my colleagues at the table appropriately shushed me and my confused look, indicating we could talk about it later.

But honestly, when I first became aware of my privilege was much earlier and had nothing to do with race.  While an accounting student at Morehead State University, my roommate Crystal wanted me to do her taxes.  I assured her that preparing the taxes for her ten-hour per week work-study was something that she could do, but I would help her.  As I guided her through the fill-in-the-blank 1040EZ, she told me that she was the first person she had ever known to file taxes.  This absolutely blew my mind.  I came from a blue-collar family where everyone worked.  There was a time when my mother could have chosen to be a stay at home mom, but wanted to be around some adults.  So she worked.  Then as a single parent, she worked several jobs at a time.  I had never considered that there were people in the whole world that didn’t work.  Crystal told me that both of her parents were on disability.  My heart broke.  How tragic.  Images of “disability” raced through my young, suburban, apparently privileged mind.  Hesitantly, and with as much compassion as I had, I asked what was “wrong” with her parents.  Her answer stunned me and changed the way I approach the world.  She told me her daddy was a drunk and her mommy couldn’t stand very long.

I fell in love with a man that really brought out the best in me, but had a long criminal history and could not stay out of trouble.  After the birth of our first child, I would watch America’s Most Wanted and look at those men and women and think,  “How disappointing.  Someone used to hold you and think you were special.  Look at you now, what a shame.” As my love continued to be unable to function in the world and I learned more about his family, I also learned more about abuse, neglect, and exploitation.  I came to learn that not everyone comes into a world of hope and promise.  I learned that it was a privilege to be the daughter of a hard-working mother who thought that I was beautiful, smart, and could be anything I wanted to be.

When I came to work at a non-profit focusing on the equality and stability of African-Americans, I was only looking for a job.  I had worked in a variety of industries and non-profit was a new industry for me.  I read the mission, learned the way the company functioned and did my assigned tasks.  As in every position I had held, my mission was to support the corporate mission.  I learned about housing inequities, unsafe neighborhoods, and predatory loans.  I learned of many barriers to employment and that a “now hiring” sign is not enough for everyone.  I learned that planning a future is a skill.  A skill that many youth need help developing.  Then on a cold morning while driving to work, I cried seeing people stand in the freezing rain waiting for the bus.  I have had a car since I was eighteen.  I think my work ethic is impeccable, but what if I had to wait in the freezing rain?  What if I had to stand with my sons in the freezing rain?  Access to reliable and independent transportation is a privilege.  A privilege not everyone has.

For me, realization of privilege leads to compassion.  There will always be privilege of some sort.  Some people will be better parents.  Some people will be quick learners.  Some people have a natural charisma.  It isn’t about blame or any kind of negative action.  Be aware of your blessings and show compassion for people who are struggling.

Audrey Poppe, Louisville Urban League