A few years ago I came across this Buzzfeed article that talked about how a high school teacher had explained the term privilege to his students. He had given each one of them a piece of scrap paper and asked them to crumple it up. He then provided the students with a very simple set of rules. He said, all of you now represent the country’s population and everyone in the country has the right to move into the upper class and become wealthy. All you have to do is, to throw your piece of paper into the bin at the front of the classroom while sitting in your seat. The students at the back of the room immediately started yelling, “This is unfair!”. They were able to see how the students in the first couple of rows had a much better chance at success. Everyone in the class took a shot and, as expected, almost every student in the first few rows made it while just a few in the last few rows did. He concluded by saying, “The closer you were to the recycling bin, the better your odds. This is what privilege looks like. Did you notice how the only ones who complained about fairness were in the back of the room?” The people in the first few rows were less aware of the privilege they were born into. Then he spoke to the class and told them that their job as students with the privilege of education is to be aware of this privilege and to advocate for those “ in the last few rows”.
This got me thinking. I have never really put much thought on this term before, privilege. Probably because even though I used to complain so much when I was younger (and still do sometimes), I have been lucky to have many great opportunities throughout my life that made it possible for me achieve many of my dreams. When I was a kid I lived in a place where I was able to go to school, I had water, food, and a roof over my head. There were people around me that inspired me and supported me. A dream to me was not to be able to have a job or never to be hungry as an adult, but to get a great job doing something I love, becoming a successful professional, travel and be financially stable. That’s a heck of a lot more than many boys and girls dream even today. Then again, I was not very aware of this. Privileges are, as I can see now, generally unseen until they are no more.
I remember a time when a friend of mine came to visit our home and mentioned how cool it was that we had several brand name cereal boxes. The comment confused me for a second but I decided not to say anything. After a few days I told another friend about it, I was trying to understand the reasoning behind the comment. He explained to me how not in everyone’s home was normal to get the “expensive” brand of cereal and that even at his house this was very often the case. The look in my face was probably an obvious one since he continued to explain. “You probably don’t realize, but think about it, you talk about the water guy, the juice guy, the pool, and those things are not normal. Not everyone has a pool as little as you say yours is. And also, very few people get distilled water delivered to their houses or have a “juice guy”.” I had never once stopped to think about this. Suddenly I felt very small remembering my rant about the 3.5 feet small plastic pool we had in our house. Nothing like the big beautiful cement pool our neighbors had. Now it clicked in my mind, I was always looking just a few feet in front of me. Never paying attention to where I was or the ones behind. The teacher was right.Although a very small example on privilege from the perspective of not having to worry about food and commodities growing up. I just wanted to show how little regard for our own reality we sometimes have.
Seems to me like nowadays is even more important to get this lesson right. My generation grew up in a time where we celebrated the historical achievements on humans rights as a won war. From Black history month, Women’s history month, Martin Luther King day, the abolition of slavery back in 1865 and to the women’s right to vote since 1920. We have grown with the mentality that the vast majority of our human issues have been resolved and that our society is a much civilized one. Then again we often forget how even recently we have still been working to get some very basic rights for some of us. Just a few years ago, in 2009, president Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act which allows employees to file lawsuits regarding equal pay for up to 180 days after a discriminatory paycheck. Yet, just in 2016, according to the White House, women still earned 79 cents for every dollar a man earned, doing the same job in the United States. For this reason President Obama announced in 2016 an executive action that requires companies with 100 employees or more to report how much they paid their employees broken down by race, gender, and ethnicity. In merely 2016. Forget about the simple right to get paid the same, the gay community just not so long ago was able to gain the simple right to marry who they love. It wasn’t until June of 2015 that same sex marriage was made legal in the United States and still that year the popular acceptance was just a 60% of the population. The greatness of these achievements makes it hard for us to dig deeper into the details of its actual execution. Like the equal pay rights, same sex couples rights is something still being worked on. Just this month, a Tennessee new legislation could prevent same sex couples from listing the name of the other spouse on the birth certificate if the baby was conceived by artificial insemination. These are just a few examples of the current reality. As much as we have made great advances in showing compassion to each other as humans and fighting for the rights of others, there is still a long way to go.
This very simple example from a high school teacher shows how we can provide our next generations with a great life lesson. The exercise is a simple, straight forward one, with a great message. A message we can teach our kids. One that would make for a better , smarter generation that learns how to help each other succeed. To realize how privileged some of us are and to see that as a power. And like our friendly neighbor says, “with great power, comes great responsibility”. Got it? Right! We can use this in our homes, in our families. Spread the message. A simple, obvious message, that is so often missed.