Some days I feel old. Some days I still feel young. But one thing I generally no longer feel is ignorant. I’m not perfect and I am always learning, but it is only within the last few years that I have become aware of how uninformed and uncaring I was as a younger man.
That isn’t to say that I was an asshole. I mean, I probably was sometimes, but I was never the guy running around rubbing people’s noses in my success or achievements. And yet, I was blissfully unaware of how easy I often had it. It’s only within the last half dozen years or so that I’ve stumbled across the words that have helped me understand so much about the world around me.
Privilege is that which you don’t have to think about.
I say that, and I know some people don’t get it. Or worse, they knee-jerk respond to the word “privilege” and go off on a tirade about being forced to be politically correct or some other nonsense. But as a younger man, I simply never gave much thought to the things I was born with. And it isn’t about how much I have, but rather how much is not held against me. And that is the root of privilege, and why it is hard for people who have it to see it, because it isn’t something they actively use, but simply something other people don’t hold against them.
As a straight white male I feel pretty comfortable going into just about any situation. I might have anxiety about how my actions or performance might be perceived but I never worry that I’m going to be hated for simply existing. There are places where that can happen, but frankly I have to seek them out with great effort, widely stepping outside my normal day to day.
For example, one time, when I was in college, I and some friends decided to go roller skating. We went to the only place we knew of near by, which happened to be in a predominantly black part of town, and it was a busy night. Our group of five (if I remember correctly) were literally the only white people there. It was uncomfortable, especially when I zoomed a bit too fast, blanked on how to stop myself, and went crashing into a group of young ladies. I was embarrassed, and even a little scared… but notice, I was also still skating. I got a lot of looks that night, because I was clearly “out of place” but even then, there I was – and no one ran me out.
There was a moment that night, just a moment, where I felt truly and deeply “outside”, and it is that moment I try to grip in my mind nowadays when I want to consider the position of someone who is without privilege. Even so, it’s often very hard to put myself in the shoes of others, or in the place of those who don’t even have shoes.
And this is where I am today, when I decided finally to read Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail. There are so many quotes from this piece that I have seen, in memes on Facebook, on shirts, on posters, plucked for use on TV – all of these mostly on MLK Day. And these quotes are powerful, their message piercing for those open to listen. And yet, in context, their power only grows. The whole letter is an astounding work.
Today, as always, there is so much focus on the bombast of King’s defining speech, I Have A Dream. But I think it’s the Letter From Birmingham Jail that most people need to read. It speaks of change and consequence, laws just and unjust, and the need for people to speak out against injustice, and to take non-violent action when speech falls of deaf ears.
“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.” -Martin Luther King Jr.
This quote struck me as I read it. I’m certain I have seen it before, but as I read it today, in context, it carried more weight, because in recent years I have tried to not be a part of the “appalling silence of the good people”. Not that I’m out there shouting injustice from the rooftops, but in lending my voice to others. Amplifying when I can. And voting when the opportunity arises.
I also can’t help but feel that much of what King says in Letter can apply today, especially that quote above, to the current administration, those who support it, and those who remain silent.