How Should We Respond to Our Privilege?

“Just because I’m privileged and other people aren’t doesn’t mean that’s my fault.”

This. This was said to me last weekend, word-for-word, in the context of a conversation about some people being unprepared to go to college due to poor literacy skills. I was trying to explain the root causes behind low literacy. (Ya know, because I work at an adult literacy agency and all.) When I stated that people like us who are born in middle-class families with long histories of educational success have a leg up in life, my conversational partner made the statement above.

What d0 I mean by privilege? “Privilege exists when one group has something of value that is denied to others simply because of the groups they belong to, rather than because of anything they’ve done or failed to do. Access to privilege doesn’t determine one’s outcomes, but it is definitely an asset that makes it more likely that whatever talent, ability, and aspirations a person with privilege has will result in something positive for them.” ~Peggy McIntosh. If you are white, if you are middle-class, if you are straight, you are privileged.

I walked away from the conversation, and I kicked myself later when I thought of all the things I should have said.

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I should have said, you’re right, it’s not your fault that you’re privileged, but it’s also not other people’s fault that they aren’t.

Rather than being merely a difference in where you happened to be born, attitudes that blame the less fortunate for their misfortune say this: You have a hard life because something is wrong with you. You (or your family) did something wrong and you deserve what you get.

I should have said that just because you, like me, happened to be born a white girl in an upper-middle class family doesn’t mean that you are somehow better than those who struggle.

I should have said that this statement ignores the existence of structural inequities in society that are oppressive to low-income people and minorities.

The”pull yourself up by your bootstraps” story that Americans idealize is a myth, most of the time. Ours is often not a country of equal opportunity, and to say otherwise is to ignore reality. For example, the gap between the rich and and poor is larger right now than it’s ever been. It’s much easier for people who are born with tremendous privilege to succeed than those who are born below the poverty level. This is just common sense.

I should have said that this statement absolves the fortunate from any responsibility to advocate for the less fortunate.

As Christians, we have a biblical responsibility to work for a just society. For racial justice, gender equality, equity of educational access, and in general, equal opportunities for all no matter the circumstances into which they were born. For gun control, so that people who are known to be troubled can’t walk into clubs and movie theaters and kindergarten classes and kill large numbers of people with freaking assault weapons.

Fellow Christians, we’re falling down on the job. Rather than saying, “I’m privileged and those other people aren’t, lucky me,” why not use that privilege to help those who don’t have it? To make the world better during the time that we are here? To tell people about Jesus, sure, but also to act like his hands and feet by making lasting changes in society?

I just can’t with the world right now.

I Support Public Education (And So Should You)

I’ve written quite a bit about being a former public school teacher. You might think that because I left teaching I have a problem with public schools. In fact, the opposite is true. I love public schools. I think they are the foundation for a democratic and equitable society. I support them, and you should too. More on that in a minute.

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First of all, a story. Growing up, I attended both private Christian and public schools, though I ended up graduating from a private Christian school. Here’s a brief summary of the state of the school options in my hometown (circa 2002-2006): expensive college-prep private, mediocre Christian private, and public schools containing mostly minority students.

When I say the private Christian schools were mediocre, I mean lacking options, like AP/IB classes, electives, even honors classes in most subjects–things the public schools had in abundance. Case in point: At the time that I graduated from my private Christian high school, there was ONE AP class offered–AP Calculus–that wasn’t doable for me. I entered college with no college credit, when other students had full years.

My parents were paying thousands of dollars a year for fewer options than I could have gotten at the local public school, for free. It boggles the mind.

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So why am I writing about this? Am I still bitter, ten years later, about not getting to take a few AP classes? Of course not. I’m writing about this because it matters, a great deal. The way people feel about public schools affects education policy at the state and federal levels–how much funding schools get, how public school teachers are evaluated, how (and how much) students are tested, etc. In the end, that affects all of us.

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Why are public schools worth supporting?

  • Public schools are legally required to provide all necessary academic services that children need, for free.

Did you know that public schools are required by the government to provide all services that children with various needs require to have equitable educational access? This includes services like ESL, classes for the intellectually gifted, a variety of special education classes, hearing and vision specialists, and speech, physical and occupational therapy, to name a few. One of my previous schools even purchased expensive cochlear implant hearing aids for all of its hearing-impaired students with district money. Do you think private schools offer all of these services? You would be very hard-pressed to find one.

  • Public schools are held to common state and federal standards.

All public schools are held to the same state and federal standards under which they are judged. Teachers are required to be highly qualified and evaluated for effectiveness at regularly-scheduled intervals. Money in the budget has to be accounted for. Curriculum is based on the Common Core standards. Private schools aren’t required to meet any of these standards. (In my nine years in private school, I don’t remember a single instance of a teacher being evaluated by an administrator while I was in class.)

  • Public schools expose children to those who are different.

It is a fact that many private Christian schools in the South opened during the 1960s and 70s as a way for parents to keep their white children separated from the black students in newly-desegregated public schools (see here, and here–the latter article is about my hometown). Most private schools remain overwhelmingly white. For example, there were maybe 5-7 black students in my entire high school of approximately 200.

As the average evangelical church is fairly segregated, your average white Christian child at a private school could conceivably go through his or her life and not interact with a person of color until adulthood. Personally, the first time I can remember talking to a black person was when I switched from private to public school in the 7th grade. What message are we sending to kids when they are constantly surrounded by those who look and act just like them? How do we expect them to feel and to act when they do encounter diversity?

Public school provides middle-class white children with the opportunity to interact and become friends with kids of different races, ethnicities, cultures and socioeconomic classes. This interaction (a) fosters empathy, (b) prepares children for the increasingly diverse United States that we live in, and (c) teaches children that they are not the center of the universe.

  • Public schools have the potential to be the great equalizer.

Theoretically, public schools have the potential to be true meritocracies, where all children enter on a level playing field and have the ability to succeed or fail based on their own merits and hard work. We know in reality that this is rarely the case. Even though no one is paying for an eduction at a public school, middle class parents are still able to provide extra benefits to help their children succeed, such as outside help and support, a knowledge of how the system works, etc. But the dream is there. Done right, public schools have the potential to be truly equitable in a way that private schools can never be.

 

So what is the point of this post? What’s a concerned parent to do? I’m not saying that public schools are the right choice for everyone in every setting. If I lived somewhere with a very low-quality school system Jonathan and I would perhaps choose private, too.

This is my point: Truly weigh all of your school options before automatically selecting a private school for your child. Make sure the private school really is a better choice, and has the services and options that the public schools do. Do your research. If your child won’t experience racial diversity at school, intentionally include it in your lives in other ways. Consider the fact that if more middle-class parents chose public schools, the school system would likely be better for everyone. Most importantly, don’t assume public schools are bad just because they contain a lot of black and brown children.

Story of a Voter: On Being an Evangelical Who Doesn’t Vote Republican

According to the Pew Research Center, I shouldn’t vote the way that I do. Statistics from a large study conducted last year confirm what seems like common knowledge–white, evangelical Protestants like me overwhelmingly vote Republican.

The stats:

  • White Evangelical Protestants (all ages):
    • 68% Republican/22% Democratic
  • White Evangelical Protestant Millenials (under 34):
    • 70% Republican/19% Democratic

As you may have gathered, I don’t vote Republican, and barring some drastic change to the modern Republican party, I don’t see myself doing so for the foreseeable future. This puts me in the significant minority for the combined factors of my race, religion and age. So what? Here’s the thing that makes me a little bit interesting: I am not a registered Democrat. I’m an independent who once voted for the GOP.

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*By the way, it’s not common practice for me to talk about my political views. I have always believed in the old adage that it’s rude to talk about politics in mixed company (including virtually), and I think most of the people who post a lot about politics online are looking for a fight and/or attention. I’ve also worried ever since college that other Christians would think badly of me for my views (see more below). But I’m not 20 years old anymore, and I can’t be scared out of sharing my opinion because someone else may not agree.*

So consider this a coming-out party of sorts. What changed with me? Here’s the story.

I voted for the first time in the 2008 presidential primary in Tennessee, when I was 20 years old and a sophomore in college. This is before I really followed politics closely, but I checked out all of the candidates and chose someone who I thought had integrity and who had similar moral values to mine. I voted for Mike Huckabee.

During this election season, I was in college at a small, conservative, Southern Baptist university. It was a given in this environment that if you were a good person and Christian, you would of course vote Republican, and I think this is partly why I did the first time.

As that year progressed and the nominees for both parties were chosen, I started to really investigate what both candidates believed. I found things that I agreed with on both sides, but I became increasingly troubled by the Republican party’s platform. Did I really agree that taxes should be lowered for millionaires? Did I agree that it should be easier for all Americans to access and own guns? Did I agree that the government had little to no responsibility to provide for the poor? No, no and no.

And I found Barack Obama very inspiring. His positive message of hope and change spoke to me, and I believed that he would really change things for the better. I also wanted a chance to help elect the first black president. Still, John McCain is a fairly moderate Republican, and if Sarah Palin hadn’t been his nominee for VP, I just might have voted for him. But if there’s one thing I absolutely cannot stand, it’s anti-intellectualism, which to me she epitomizes.

So I voted for Obama in the general election. I felt so excited and empowered to vote my conscience, at least until my friend/roommate/sorority sister told me that she was mad at me, and that I should keep this information to myself unless I wanted everyone else to judge me, too. She also mentioned that almost everyone she knew would react badly to a black man being president, so there was no way Obama could win and I had thrown away my vote. True story: I came back to our apartment that day with a water bottle with an “Obama ’08” sticker that had been handed to me at the polls. I put it in our shared fridge. Later I found the Obama sticker ripped off of it and in several pieces in the trash can. Nice, right?

I’ve voted Democratic ever since. I don’t agree with all parts of their platform, but it most closely mirrors my values at this point. Each election year, I truly give all candidates a chance, and I could conceivably vote for a moderate Republican (a rare beast these days). But the post-Obama Republican party has so far had nothing to offer me. I find the elitist, xenophobic, racist, obstructionist strains of the GOP that have emerged over the past eight years morally repugnant, and totally incompatible with my faith in Jesus and my understanding of his teachings.

As a moderate, young, white, educated, evangelical Protestant in a battleground state, I see myself as something of a test case for what is wrong with the modern Republican party, and why their electorate is shrinking every year. Republicans want people like me to vote for them. Unless the party undergoes a dramatic change, that will continue to happen less and less.

 

What we are used to is what we are okay with: some thoughts on privilege

The house next door to ours is currently in the process of being flipped. This means that at any given time, there are roughly 4-6 trucks/vans/tractor trailers in next door’s driveway and in our cul-de-sac. The various workmen are there really long hours, usually from about 7 in the morning to 8 or so at night.

There is one man that I’ve noticed being there more than the others. His white work van says that he does tile and other kinds of flooring. The reason I have noticed this man is because he often has what I assume is his son with him. This boy is probably about 9 or 10 years old. Where in the past I have noticed this particular boy and his dad come and go several times throughout the day, the day before yesterday they were there all day long…probably a straight 12 hours. I saw the boy do various things during the day: sit in his dad’s van, play with rocks in the backyard of the house his dad was working on, walk around our cul-de-sac, and shoot baskets in the nearby basketball goal using the only ball he had, which was a soccer ball.

From what I could tell, this boy wasn’t mad at having to entertain himself all day in a strange place, wasn’t grumpy because he was hot, and wasn’t bored. I thought about students of mine who have talked to me about going to work with their parents when school is out. I also couldn’t help but think about myself at the same age, and about how I would have reacted if my parents had told me I had to go with them to work (outside) all day long in the summer. I know that I would have whined, complained, and generally raised hell about this plan. As if I needed another reminder, this shows me yet again just how privileged I was, and am. This also says something about the state of child care in this country, and that it is only the affluent who can afford to pay someone else to watch their child(ren) when school is not in session.

The boy and his dad aren’t here today. I hope they’re both getting to relax.