I have the privilege of walking in between two worlds: one of dire lack and one where disposable income is a regularity. When I talk to my friends of means, and tell them about how I grew up, they are shocked at how resourceful and creative one must be in order to beat the odds and overcome adversity. Likewise, when I visit with friends and family who can’t imagine being able to afford to send their kids to daycare or summer camp, they dream of a world where such possibilities are accessible. No matter where I go in life, I will never forget where I come from and who I come from. I know that a lot of blood, sweat, prayers, and tears make up the fabric of my existence; and I know that no matter how easy or difficult life may seem, I have the privilege of being alive to tell this story.
Privilege isn’t just a class, gender or race issue. Privilege encompasses the ability to live freely in a world where it takes little or no effort to exist and achieve your dreams. Unfortunately, because of certain systemic inequities that exist, many people are disadvantaged and live in ways that are restrictive and that do not allow them to thrive without resistance. When you are a person of privilege, it can be hard to imagine that the playing field isn’t leveled; but when you are a woman, or a person of color, or a transgender person, or a person from a lower socioeconomic bracket, you are familiar with the ways in which having privilege colors your reality. For those of you who may not be as familiar with the ways in which privilege impacts those who don’t have it or who have very little, here are 6 things that people with privilege never have to worry about:
1. Food. When you are a person of privilege and reasonable means, you can afford to be picky with the types of foods you eat or don’t eat; but for as long as I can remember, food has always been a precious commodity. My college educated mother could only find work in fast food restaurants and retail stores, and even working 2 and 3 jobs did not give her a livable wage. When we weren’t sifting through the end of the day’s garbage to salvage what was edible, my cousins and I would dumpster-dive and bring home our bounty that included anything that was unopened and not expired. Food stamps, when we could get them, never provided enough food to last for the entire month. When we could get rides to the food shelf, we were treated like filthy criminals and judged for needing to eat. As a poor child, you learn early on that when you are presented with food, any kind of food, you graciously accept it and eat it because it may be a while before you eat again.
2. Clothing. Name brands don’t mean much to me but I understand that there are those for whom certain labels communicate specific taste and a certain level of social value. I am the oldest of 3, and when I lived with my mother, even second-hand clothing was hard to come by. My clothes were always either too big or too small. Thankfully, my feet grew quickly and I was able to wear my mother’s shoes by the time I was in 3rd grade. When we went to live with my grandmother shortly thereafter, we had other cousins living with us too–which was helpful because we at least had more clothes to choose from. By the time I was in the 4th grade, my grandmother met a friend who let us use her credit card to buy school clothes and supplies, and allowed my grandmother to pay her $20 each week until the $300 limit was paid off. I got my first job working at a daycare center when I was 12 making $2.50 an hour and it was so wonderful because I was finally able to afford to buy myself clothes. Even as an adult, I only buy clothes when it is absolutely necessary and select items based on need not greed or allegiance to a particular brand.
3. Shelter. There are many people who will always know the privilege of having a place to live, be grateful for this. At one point, there was 11 of us living in a 1-bedroom. Between underemployment and being hired as contractors–aka your pay is never guaranteed, having a place to live simply meant having a roof over our head–whether that roof was a car, an apartment, a porch, or a garage. I vowed that when I became an adult, I would always have a place to live. What I didn’t factor into the equation was the impact that race, class and gender had on whether people hired me, paid me a livable wage, or approved me for loans or rental applications. In many places, you have to have 5-10 years of rental history and several months of paid rent upfront before being approved for an apartment. If you can’t rent an apartment because you have insufficient rental history, or you don’t make enough money, you end up homeless. And if you’re transgender, even the homeless shelters turn you away because beds are separated by gender and you become a threat (or threatened) when your gender doesn’t fit into a nice, neat box.
4. Education. Growing up, my family valued education because we realized that there was a time when our ancestors weren’t allowed to go to school. There was always an understanding that getting an education was the ticket out of poverty. Both my parents are dead, but even when they were alive, they could not afford to send me to school so I got loans to pay for school and I worked in a series of customer service positions and did freelance work to pay bills. The terrible thing about student loans is that, unless you step into a career that is paying above a living wage, there is no way to reduce your debt. In high school, we are told that going to college will ensure a job…and well, many people are paying for degrees that they aren’t using. It is a luxury to go to college, and I am happy to have been the first person in my family to earn a Master’s degree, but unless I am actually able to pay for the degree, it will continue to remain a negative mark on my credit report that scores us on the amount of debt we have in relation to how much money we actually earn. The desire to further my education is squelched every time I consider how much more debt I will accumulate if I go back.
5. Work. There is a huge difference between having a job and having a career. For those fortunate enough to be groomed for a career, internships and summer work makes for an impressive resume. For the rest of us who simply need jobs to survive, experience is needed to get a job…but a job is what gives you experience. This catch-22 is what keeps many people locked into the rat-race of underemployment. Thankfully, I learned my work ethic from my mother and grandmother who always had several jobs and were both not afraid of hard work. When you have privilege, you get to be picky about where you work and for how long, but when you are of the working poor, you take any and every job that you can get. My mother went to college and still could not find a job that paid above $9 an hour. Before her death, she began suffering from a multitude of physical and mental illnesses and, as a result, Walmart was the only place that hired her and she didn’t qualify for disability because her conditions weren’t severe enough so she panhandled to make ends meet.
6. A future. When you are a person with privilege, the world is your oyster and you can take up as much space as you see fit. However, when you spend your life working several jobs, unsure of where your food and money and housing will come from, and you fight everyday battles that include illness, discrimination and stress, your future seems pretty dim. My father became ill at 34 and suffered for 6 years from his illness and from being caught in the wheels of oppression before taking his life. Similarly, my mother, after spending years working tirelessly, battling abusive relationships, addictions and illness, dropped dead at 45. What kind of future do you have when your basic necessities are always in question? It’s hard to dream about the future when the present isn’t secure.
“It is my faith that keeps me strong…”
I come from a long line of faithful people who believed in God and community, and they used their beliefs as fuel to keep moving forward. It is their stories that I keep with me. My ancestors who were slaves. My grandparents who were sharecroppers. My parents who died with unrealized dreams. They give me hope. And it is God who gives me a vision for the future. I dream of a world where all people have the ability to not just survive, but also thrive.
The same God who guided Joseph from the pit to the palace; the same God who elevated Esther; the same God who took a little shepherd boy and made him king…this is the same God that shows me a future with possibility. A future where my labor is not in vain and one where all people who come to the table hungry will walk away filled. A future where no one is homeless and where people who want to work, who have the skills, will not be denied access to such opportunities because of their race, class, age, or gender. I am thankful to God for connecting me to community because the people who surround me with their love, resources and hope make me believe everyday that as long as I keep working and dreaming and building and connecting, that I will always have everything I need.