Privilege. I have many privileges. One jarring reminder came over breakfast with a longtime friend. He is a Mexican American who was raised in a town of over 18,000 (by current estimates.) A town 25 miles from my hometown in Wichita Kansas.
We competed against each other in high school. We competed for a starting position on the same team in junior college. We competed against each other at the university level. Throughout the competitions, we remained friends. I usually meet him for a meal when I visit Wichita.
Over breakfast, he told me when he was young, he had to drive to Wichita to get his haircut (by the way he had great hair.) No barber in his hometown would cut a Mexican American’s hair. He shared how hesitant he was when a friend suggested they go together to a barber in our junior college town. He got his hair cut without a problem. In fact, the barbers were excited to see him because of their interest in basketball.
When he told me, I was again reminded of my naivete about prejudice and my privilege. I never had to worry about getting my hair cut. I am sure I have received many other privileges of which I am not aware. Listening to him, demonstrated, how important it is to listen to other cultures for understanding. I try to listen.
There is a sense in which my privilege is white privilege but there is a very important sense in which it is not. To understand how that is possible, we need to go to the Rocky Mountains.
Monarch Pass. For many years, we had access to a cabin, high (over 10,00 feet) isolated (over a mile off the main road over Monarch Pass) in Colorado. Until we moved to Alabama our family spent summers there. We often shared the time with high school and college students who were part of our Christian fellowship groups.
We often took everyone hiking high in the mountains. When we came down a mountain, we drank from a beautiful creek that is part of the Arkansas River system.
One year we got a parasite, Giardia Lamblia, from drinking untreated water. Many stories occurred as a result of the parasite but the only one of current importance regards our dog Smokee.
Our Dog. Smokee was a Keeshond. A wonderful breed if you live in a cool climate. As you see, they have extremely long fur.
He accompanied us to Colorado and we feared he had the parasite. Our vet gave us a very strong worm pill and told us to watch him closely. We were told to follow the usual de-worming process: three days of pills, three days without and then another three days with the pills.
The first day with the pills we watched him closely. He had problems walking and keeping his balance. We continued to watch him closely for the first six days. He continued to have problems.
On the sixth day Jeny was concerned about giving Smokee the pills again. She was going to take him to the vet before starting the last three days of the pills. At the last minute before she left for the vet, I put him in my lap and found a lump on his neck; I thought it might be a tick. When Jeny sorted down through all the hair, we were shocked and embarrassed to learn Smokee had gotten his right paw through his collar. HE HAD BEEN TRYING TO WALK AROUND WITH HIS LEG STRAPPED TO HIS NECK. We removed the collar and he ran around happy and free.
Confounded Variables. The point of my story is — we were closely watching one thing when another event was causing the problem. In more technical terms, two variables were confounded. We thought the change from no pill to the pill was causing his behavior when in fact, he got his paw through his collar. We did not see it because of his long hair and our intense focus on taking the pill.
Abuse of Power. What do confounded variables have to do with privilege? With regard to the misuse of privilege, race (or culture) is confounded with power in America.
White privilege occurs when whites have power and deny people of other races that which is available to white people. Because whites have great power in America, there are more opportunities for abuse of the power by whites. However, in my opinion, the big problem for privilege is power — its use and abuse and not race or culture.
Whites certainly have power in many circumstances in America, and therefore white privilege is a dominating factor in our lives. Because of the preponderance of white power many people focus solely on race and miss the critical second variable — abuse of power.
We have many more problems than privilege. But, in my opinion, the critical variable I need to be most concerned with in regard to privilege is not race or culture but the abuse of power. Not whiteness, but the abuse of power by some whites, and the potential for abuse by all races and by all cultures.
Abuse of power is a human problem not exclusive to one race or culture. When people of other cultures and races have power, then the people of that same race or culture have privileges and the potential for abuse. Non-white races and cultures have less power in America, therefore less privilege and less abuse. But all races and cultures are human. All races and cultures have privilege when they have power. All races and cultures have the potential for the abuse of power in situations where they have power.
For example, when I graduated from college, I played basketball in a recreational league with a friend from work. He captained and ran a Mexican team. I was the only Gringo, However, when they played on the weekends I could not play because they played in Mexican-only tournaments.
Being Mexican had privileges in this situation where Mexicans had power. I was denied participation. A small example and one about which I had no personal objection. However, if it had been a white-only tournament, would it have been deemed appropriate or inappropriate?
To further argue the importance of power in privilege, consider the following: I have privileges because I am white, but I believe blacks with power have many privileges I do not have. I am sure Michael Jordan, Denzel Washington, Oprah Winfrey and other African Americans with power have privileges I do not have.
My argument does not lessen the importance to struggle against the abuses of white power. It makes clearer to me, in the battle for justice we need a dialog about power and the abuse of power.
As I have said, I believe the battle is a human battle. Humans of all cultures and races have the potential to either properly use or to abuse in any circumstance they have power. Therefore, all humans should be alert to the possible personal misuse of power and the possible misuse by members of their race or culture.
In every human, our heart, our faith, our character, not our race determines whether power is abused or is used with love and wisdom. Those are where our focus should be.
I take the use of power seriously. Some people intentionally exploit the power associated with race. I do not knowingly seek to take advantage of my race. I have not intentionally exercised power to the disadvantage of someone of a different race. I have intentionally used my power to the advantage of blacks and other cultures. I hope I find ways to do more.
As always, I welcome your comments and insights.
Until next week