Privilege as Currency

Ijeoma Oluo writes ‘Every time you go through something, and it’s easy for you, look around and say, “Who is it not easy for? And what can I do to dismantle that system?”‘

While I would not classify the last couple of years as “easy,” Jason and I have identified that it’s in large part a function of our privilege that he’s still alive. Privilege doesn’t necessarily mean everything is easy, or everything is handed to you…my friend Robert Caldwell of Answer Poverty gives this definition of privilege which I think is super useful:

Privilege is your access to the resources and opportunities necessary for achieving success in our socio-economic system AND…insulation from the impacts of systemic injustices that work against success in our socio-economic system because of your social location.

Social Location is your place or position in society (and history) as defined by your gender, race, social class, age, ability, religion, sexual orientation, and geographic location.

For my family dealing with heart disease that looks like (among other things):
~Having the time to call doctors over and over until someone listened
~Having good health insurance so they could fight with the hospital about cost of treatment, and so he could receive treatment in the first place
~Having money to pay for medical costs
~Having time to figure out this whole food plant based thing (which is NOT easy at first, no matter what some blogger told you)
~Having money to buy good quality food
~not living in a food desert so we had access to nutritious foods
~other factors I didn’t even think of right now because they were not obstacles for us, and anyhow you get the point

I’ve been advised recently to think of privilege as a currency to spend. The question I keep hearing is “What do I do?”
Critical thinking is needed.
Shortly after the election a friend of mine came over. We sat at the dining room table and ate tacos (remember when everyone was sad there wouldn’t be a taco truck on every street corner?) and he asked me, “What do I do? I want to do racial justice work but I don’t know how to begin.”
“You should find a homeschooling co-op that is run by a black woman, and do the best you can to support her leadership.”
“Crap! I better find some kids to homeschool then!”
The thing is (as the snarky example above shows), I don’t know exactly how every person should engage with the work of dismantling white supremacy. When you have stage 4 metastatic cancer you don’t usually do one thing. You do all the things. You see an oncologist and a radiologist and a primary care doctor and you eat special food and you take care of your mental health however you can. Racial justice work in America is like that. We have to specialize, with the bigger picture in mind.

Critical thinking is needed.

There are common threads for sure, and if someone’s social location is similar to yours you may be able to glean from them. If someone’s social location is different from yours that can and should also inform your work. There are a lot of people writing about this. Try to find and read the work of people whose social location is different from yours (this is especially and incredibly important if you are a dominant paradigm person). Part of the way I’ve chosen to spend my privilege is to help make a way for others to tell their stories and be believed. That won’t fix everything, but it’s a necessary step.

The more privilege we have, the more opportunity we have to spend it to effect a change. Or not.

Critical thinking is needed.

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I’ve been researching my ancestors. As a middle class white American person, it feels disingenuous to look at only the fun parts of my family history, so I’m struggling to get my mind around the other parts. I’ve been thinking about it a lot during this process. I was clear that there was going to be some stuff I might not be proud of, as well as some things I was very excited to learn. And there is a lot of exciting and interesting history I look forward to delving into. Still, it’s jarring to see census data from 1830 and 1840 with my four times great grandfather’s household, neatly sorted out by age bracket, male/female, and free/slave.

If you are one of those (almost definitely white) people who think that slavery was “a long time ago” and people should stop “whining” about institutionalized racism, white privilege, and other parts of this complicated issue, try doing some ancestor searching. Because realizing how few generations ago it was legal in this country to own another person is sobering; and some of us do not have the luxury of living as though it never happened.

Institutionalized racism does affect ALL of us negatively (whether we acknowledge it or not), though not all of us have an increased likelihood of going to jail or dying because of it.

1830 census