‘The black mother perceives destruction at every door, ruination at each window, and even she herself is not beyond her own suspicion… beyond her door, all authority is in the hands of people who do not look or think or act like her or her children. Teachers, doctors, sales clerks, librarians, policemen, welfare workers are white and exert control over her family’s moods, conditions and personality; yet within the home, she must display a right to rule which at any moment, by a knock at the door, or a ring of the telephone can be exposed as false.’ – Maya Angelou, The Heart of a Woman
I sat upright in bed when I finished reading that passage the other night and I’ve been able to think of little else since. Even though I myself am not a black mother, this spoke so clearly to me about privilege, a subject that is so emotionally-charged that productive conversations rarely happen around it without someone walking away wounded.
In recent years, like so many others, I’ve been grappling with the notion of privilege. Millions of us have since watched in horror as people in positions of power have unashamedly flaunted their privilege, leaving the rest of us feeling demoralized, deflated, crushed. For many brave people, this has spurred them on to action, opening up discussions about what privilege is, what it looks like, where it is, what it means. But discussions invariably become tense with people becoming highly defensive and dismissive as a result.
In thinking about it, I’ve been forced to examine and check my own privilege, to confront it, to understand what it is (something I’m still learning), to unpack how it’s made my life better and possibly made worse the lives of others, how I carry that privilege forward in my own life and through my children. What I’ve been unable to do successfully is find neutral vocabulary to talk about it. Even though power is inherent in privilege, if we can talk about it without judgement and in ways that are relatable, people can honestly start to reflect on their own privilege and then harness that for the good of others (and themselves).
There are some people who actively seek privilege to the detriment of others. But the vast majority of people don’t even know they possess privilege because, like everyone else, they’re just trying to make it through a day. But every time you look away from someone struggling or you watch quietly (or not at all) while a person fights to be heard, seen, accepted, paid a fair wage, you are using your privilege. Your wealth, gender, race, religion, social standing, etc affords you the privilege of not having to get involved. We have all done it and while that doesn’t make us terrible people, it does make us complicit in the current struggles about privilege and power that are taking place around the world. So how do we move forward from that heavy knowledge?
That passage from Maya Angelou’s book is the framework we need to think about privilege in a relatable way. That passage sums it up so perfectly it’s almost too raw to touch. When thinking about privilege, ask yourself: beyond my home, the safety of these walls, the security of my dwelling, am I free to be who I really am without interference from others? So as a woman, am I able to look and dress and behave as I want? Or am I labelled bossy for spelling out what I need, pushy because I don’t let you tell me how it is, or one of those minority women because I actually talk about race and prejudice and don’t just quietly tolerate it?
As a human, are you able to freely walk through neighborhoods without someone calling Neighborhood Watch, locking their doors when they see you, changing their body language? Are you able to drive a car without being pulled over for no reason or travel without security consistently pulling you aside for additional screening?
As a parent, do you ever have to worry that your children will be treated differently outside of your home because of how they look? What religious holidays they do or don’t celebrate? What things they can or cannot afford to do that their peers are doing?
Dr. Angelou went on to say about black mothers ‘she must tell her children the truth about…power without suggesting that it cannot be challenged.’
Do you ever have to have conversations like that with your children, where you have to balance the truth of the hurdles they will face through being born who they are with the belief that they still have the power (although maybe not the resources or broad support) to change it? For most things, I do not have to have these conversations with my children. That is their and my privilege. But when it comes to other issues, I do and it haunts me that any person should have to feel this way.
But in order for me, as human being, to productively contribute to this conversation, I need to be honest about the multiple ways in which I am in a position of privilege before I can use that to make the world better for others and myself. I’m not saying people have to justify the privileged positions they find themselves in now. For many of us, we didn’t know what social status, race, gender, we were growing up into. But we know now. And that matters. What we do in this moment now and from this moment forward matters because we know systems are being used against others and that privilege is real and has the power to propel you forward or hold you down until you choke under its weight.
So use Dr. Angelou’s words a benchmark for examining and understanding privilege and ask yourself: beyond the safety of your home, are you able to be who you really are? Then use the answer to make your life and the lives of others better. And to all the brave people doing this already, thank you; we need you.