This afternoon building a Lego spaceship with an 8 year-old cousin after the family Thanksgiving, I couldn’t stop thinking about potential. And particularly, I couldn’t stop thinking about the way our potential can be thwarted or encouraged by our circumstances – and sometimes by the mentality our circumstances creates. I had this weird moment where I kept thinking about the ways in which this 8 year-old had a few steps ahead of some folks in the world but also of some of the ways he might be a few steps behind. I wonder how easily it would be to predict someone’s future success based entirely on demographic factors: socioeconomic factors, race, gender, religion, etc. I mean, we were just sitting there playing with Legos, and all I could think was, “Yeah! Legos! You’re gonna be an Engineer! Here we are fostering the creative! The possibilities are limitless! Or are they?”
I guess it couldn’t have been a more appropriate time to be thinking all of this. In the context of Ferguson, in the context of Thanksgiving, we’re a nation that needs to be concerned with the ways those demographic factors can either thwart or encourage a person’s potential. Sometimes, we call it “privilege,” but that’s a phrase a lot of folks (at least as I’ve experienced in the South) don’t want to use or acknowledge. But in the context of Thanksgiving, especially, a time where we look at our “plenty” and bow our heads and say grace and thanks for the “plenty” we’ve been given, being privileged is probably something we know better than we’re willing to admit.
Let me see if I can explain this on a level that’s a little more personal: I’m now in my early thirties. I’ve got a Master’s degree from a top-tier university and studied under some world-famous folks. I’m white. I’m male. I’ve got supportive family and friends, a roof over my head, and money in the bank (even if very, very little). I’m world-traveled with a lot of experience in a few fields. But I’ve struggled to find work for two years. And, usually, that’s the point where people will say, “White male privilege?! Where can I get me some of that white male privilege you’re talkin’ about?! Cause I’m struggling here and I don’t see it!” But that’s not the take-away I have at all. Instead, my take-away from this struggle, this humiliating, painful struggle it’s been, is that if it’s this hard for me, how much harder must it be for someone who didn’t enjoy some of the “plenty” I had growing up they never had? How could I ever demonize them for not working hard enough or for not having enough personal responsibility to claim their lives when my work or responsibility hasn’t turned up a whole lot? That is, if I struggle to get work with a Master’s degree and a strong group of folks supporting me – all of whom I couldn’t be more thankful for this year as they’ve advocated on my behalf left-and-right – how am I ever supposed to expect someone who has none of that to pull themselves up by their bootstraps? As another friend said, to paraphrase, how can people who never had boots be expected to pull themselves up by their bootstraps? What, so they can finally get that job at McDonalds or some other major corporation that pays them far below a living wage and nearly guarantees that they’ll be stuck in that cycle?
If you are grateful at all this Thanksgiving for what’s been given to you, then be thankful enough to step into the shoes of those whose opportunities weren’t as grand as yours. That’s really the heart of what people are trying to get at when they talk about “white privilege.” They’re talking about empathy and understanding. After all, for some folks opportunities might have even been nonexistent just because of their skin color or perhaps their gender or perceived sexual orientation or economic status. And if you never had to worry about those things holding you back, maybe be careful before you judge others calling them “lazy.” Because in my two years of searching, there were times where I was tempted to give up, and while I haven’t and won’t (thanks in part to the support network I’ve had that others don’t have), I can at least say that I understand why some might have said, “To hell with it. The whole system is rigged.” Because we live in a world that cries despair for some and hope for others. And that world won’t be just until there’s hope for all. If you’ve wondered why so many religious figures have moved in on doing something about Ferguson, that’s why: a just world seeks to give hope to everybody. It seeks to “un-rig” the whole rigged system. And if you aren’t willing to acknowledge that, to cry foul in the face of those kinds of injustices, then don’t be surprised when you get called racist or sexist or labeled something awful. I don’t know that we help the situation when we rush to those labels always, but those labels are a sign of a kind of righteous rage, of that very growing despair that’s been too-often dismissed or ignored. Because you will hear that despair. And the best way to not have to hear it any longer is to start advocating for hope, by acknowledging where our privileges are, where we had plenty, and by seeking to make sure others have the same advantages. And that’s something we should do often, or at the very least, every Thanksgiving.