A white woman checked my privilege recently, and I’m glad she did.
She was presenting at an education writers conference at Stanford, where top experts discussed research on the academic achievement gaps between various groups of students. I asked her if there were aspects of the second-generation immigrant experience that could be valuable to helping lower-income students improve their academic outcomes.
I asked this as a child of working-class immigrants who came to America with very little, and who worked hard to raise six high-achieving children. We grew up on the outskirts of an upper-middle-class, mostly white suburb, where I frequently felt like an outsider.
The presenter asked me a few pointed questions:
-- Even though my mother didn’t speak English, had she been educated in her native country? Yes.
-- Even though we qualified for reduced-price lunches growing up, did we ever worry about our next meal? No.
-- Did my parents model the behaviors one needs to succeed in middle-class society? Yes.
-- Did we attend high-quality public schools? Yes.
In fact, our house was filled with books and high expectations, even though we were a working-class minority by race, ethnicity and religion. I certainly didn’t feel “privileged” in comparison to the wealthy white Christian families I grew up around, but looking back, I see that I was far more privileged than poor children in failing schools.
She helped me clarify my own assumptions: that it was primarily our hard work and learned values that got my siblings and me where we are. Those played an important role, of course, but there were unearned advantages that we benefited from, and it was naive for me to suggest that our experience could be compared to that of far more disadvantaged students.
It was after this conversation that I decided to approach the topic with my own middle-schoolers. We’ve always talked to them about the responsibilities that come with blessings and the importance of gratitude, but this was a different conversation. I wanted to help them see the difference between societal privilege, enjoyed by certain groups, and a blessing, a spiritual favor that can be bestowed upon anyone.
I also didn’t want my children to buy into the false narrative about their identity as American Muslims -- that they were either villains or victims, as so often portrayed in the media.
We talked about how power works in society. They are already aware that certain people are treated differently based on factors outside their control. So, there may be situations when they’ll be singled out while traveling based on their names or religious background. But there will also be times when they will benefit from certain characteristics -- whether it’s their gender, their socio-economic background, their skin color, their lack of disabilities or their sexual orientation.
We talked about what it means to use that privilege to work toward a more just society.
Nicole Hudson, the director of racial equity and priority initiatives for St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, has taken a different approach with her own children, who are several years younger than mine. She will point out scenarios in which people in the same situation are treated differently -- by the police or the courts, for example -- and let them form their own conclusions.
Privilege is often about who gets the benefit of the doubt and who gets second chances, she said. Parents can explain to minority children that their white friends may not get in trouble (or to the same degree) for the same mistakes as them -- a reality borne out by history and years of data.
“Some people get a larger margin of error,” she said.
But she tries to avoid using the word “privilege” at all when talking about issues related to race or inequality.
“It’s a trigger word,” she said. “It so quickly shuts down the conversation” with some people, who see it as an attack. They assume they are being told they don’t deserve something or that their work didn’t matter. Or that they should feel guilty for something they couldn’t control.
“It becomes a debate about what they did or didn’t do, instead of helping them see a recurring systemic issue,” she said.
That defensiveness is learned, which is why I want my own children to recognize the ways in which they benefit from society’s power structures and the ways they don’t. More importantly, I want them to think about what they can do to listen to and lift up the voices of people who deal with challenges they won’t experience.
It was embarrassing to me that, as an adult, I failed to take into account the advantages in my upbringing before implying there were lessons in it for those less fortunate.
“You don’t see it because it was there for you,” Hudson said.
I had failed to separate the privilege from the blessings.