Let’s discuss the idea of privilege

On Friday May 5, from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., there will be a forum titled “What’s All This Talk About Privilege?” at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Westminster, sponsored by Carroll Citizens for Racial Equality (CCRE). For many years, CCRE has been a positive force in our community, seeking to “engage with others in honest and respectful dialogue on issues of racial, ethnic, religious, and other differences.”


It wasn’t luck. It was privilege. Back in 1981, I was a young, white, English-speaking Canadian with a Ph.D. from Princeton, standing before a deportation judge in Boston – a man who held my fate in his hands.

For five years, I had worked at a job in the United States that my J class visa did not permit me to hold. With the help of a lawyer, I had filed numerous appeals and obtained many temporary stays, continuing to work but unable to travel outside the U.S., because without papers I would not be allowed back in. My appeals were now exhausted, except for this one man’s final decision. The procedure was for me to declare that yes, I was deportable, and to throw myself on the mercy of the court. I knew of several other people in the same position who had been deported – to Sierra Leone, to Mexico, to Colombia. After my declaration, I waited for what seemed a long time. Finally, he announced that he would allow me to have resident alien status – a green card. So I was admitted legally into the U.S., and a few years later became a naturalized citizen.

The outcome of my case was not determined solely by the rule of law, or even by the luck of the draw. My story is one of privilege. I believe that I was allowed to stay because I was white. I even looked a bit like the judge.

I benefit almost daily from the privilege that comes with being a white guy in a predominantly white, and still male-dominated, society. Privilege is real, and like compound interest, its advantages tend to pile up as time goes by. Lack of privilege is also real, and early disadvantage, whether in the quality of one’s home life, in one’s ethnic status, or in material poverty, tends to set a person back from the starting line, and the eventual attainments, that others take for granted.

Success in life depends on both effort and privilege; these are two independent influences, not competing ones. However, some people oppose the whole idea of privilege; often, these critics seem to assume that recognizing a person’s privilege is equivalent to disregarding his or her effort. But this assumption is not logical. It oversimplifies the reality that success has many partial causes, and that recognizing one cause says nothing about the others.

The sources of privilege are easy to see if we reflect on the emotions of gratitude and pride. We are often grateful for the good things in our life that were given to us; and we are proud of the good things we have created through our own efforts. For example, there is no contradiction in being both grateful for your parents and proud of earning your diploma.

In the United States, many people are grateful to have been born white. This is a tacit admission that being white confers a type of privilege. And yet many of these proud white Americans have chosen to attack the idea of privilege itself, even going so far as to ask that discussions of the concept be stifled.

This is an issue that needs to be discussed, not censored. On Friday May 5, from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., there will be a forum titled “What’s All This Talk About Privilege?” at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Westminster, sponsored by Carroll Citizens for Racial Equality (CCRE). For many years, CCRE has been a positive force in our community, seeking to “engage with others in honest and respectful dialogue on issues of racial, ethnic, religious, and other differences.” The quote comes from CCRE’s Facebook page.

As my mentor, the late Ira Zepp, would have said about the May 5 event, let each person who has a point of view on privilege bring his or her best arguments to this forum, and focus on the strongest points raised by those who disagree with them. But let us not falsely accuse, or sow distrust, or spread misinformation, about those who may hold different views, because we only diminish our own standing when we indulge in those tactics. I must assume that those who are uncomfortable with the idea of privilege do have something to say that they feel deeply about. I would like to hear them out and have a conversation about it.

I will be attending the forum on May 5, and invite others with stories about privilege, or reservations about the whole concept, to join in. Let’s figure this out together.

To register for the event, contact Carrie Miller at cmiller@ccysb.org by April 28.

Charles Collyer is the co-director of the Ira and Mary Zepp Center for Nonviolence and Peace Education. He writes from Uniontown.

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