Privilege. I remember first learning about it my sophomore year at TCU during a leadership training for all the Resident Assistants. We lined up and a facilitator read statements about our upbringing and family as we took steps forward or backwards. Our staggered line represented privilege. I stood ahead of many people in the room and was infuriated as I was told that I was privileged- that since day one, I have had advantages that have helped get me to where I am. Regardless of what they were saying, all I was hearing was that I had not earned my accomplishments- my 4.0 in high school or scholarship to college, my acceptance to nursing school or summer internship… I felt like all my life my successes were destined to be tainted by people claiming that my life circumstances had given me an unfair advantage.
4 years later I’ve learned a lot about this thing called privilege. It actually has nothing to do with what I’ve earned or not earned. Privilege refers to the life circumstances that positions one for success. You can squander privilege and you can have very little and beat the odds. At the end of the day though, hard work is hard work and the successes that come along with it are earned and should be celebrated. What privilege refers to and what I think we can all agree on is that everyone is born into different life circumstances- some of which are more favorable than others. Where I think we disagree is the extent to which this impacts the rest of our lives. There seems to be a popular perspective that anyone receiving government assistance or who ends up homeless, jobless, or down and out at any point in their life has just failed to pull up their bootstraps and hit the hustle. And so I want to share a story with you to paint a picture that four years ago, I did not and could not wrap my head around. Names have been changed but every detail is true to my recollection. This family gave me permission to share this story.
Monday, August 21, 2017. Today is the first day of public school in Fort Worth, Texas. Saturday night I received a text from my neighbor, Gelila: “Hi Monica how are please can you help me Monday Zahra she will go new school I don’t know where can help her to register am work so please thank you.” Gelila was worried because she did not know if Zahra was registered for sixth grade or even which school she would be attending. Gelila is a single mom of three kids and their family has lived in America for less than three years. After reaching out to another neighbor we find out that Zahra’s middle school is a few miles away and that registration is at 9:00 Monday morning.
Gelila starts work early in the morning as a housekeeper at a local hotel and cannot be late. She takes the 7:10 bus to clock in on time. School starts at 9 AM and so this morning, we woke up and drove to the middle school at 7 AM to figure out registration. A woman is sitting in the office, we can see her through the front door of the school. Gelila goes in to inquire about registration. I see the secretary wag her finger in front of her face and point hastily to the door. Gelila walks out seconds later. “The office doesn’t open until 8.” I took a deep breath and let my white, accentless-English-speaking self through the front door of the school. I peer around the run-down hallways- lockers hang crooked by one hinge, old paint furls off the wall. I enter the office and explain that I have a quick question about registration. The secretary politely opens the file, looks up Zahra, and confirms that my neighbor was automatically enrolled from fifth grade and is good to start this morning. We then drive across town to the hotel where Gelila works and afterwards, I head over and drop Zahra off at a neighbor’s house who will drive her to school. Before heading off to a meeting I have at work, I asked Zahra to smile for a first day of school pic. “Smile Zahra!” She stares back with a heavy face and wide eyes.
“I can’t. I am too stressed.” she whispers. She looks like she’s fighting back tears so I kneel down and ask her what’s wrong. “I’m not wearing a uniform and I don’t know where to go.” I look over and the neighbor’s son is wearing a white collared shirt and navy pants – the uniform all the other kids will be wearing. I give her a huge hug, tell her it will be ok – “it’s room 16, you can ask for directions when you get there…” We pray for her first day together but my heart is breaking as I rush off to the meeting I am already late for.
As I drive to work I can’t help but contrast this whirlwind of a first-day-of-school experience to all of my first days. Each year my grandma took the grandchildren shopping and we picked out a few outfits for the new school year. I went to meet-the-teachers with my mom a few days before the first day, met some of my classmates and learned how to find my classroom. The morning of, my mom would make us a special breakfast and I would put on my favorite outfit I had picked out school shopping with my cousins. My backpack would be filled with fresh notebooks and crisp pencils, along with all the other random supplies on the list. My mom would go inside and take the classic “first day of school picture” with my teacher. Our classroom would be beautifully decorated with bright colors and crafts and there would be a desk with my name printed on a name card. At the end of the day, my mom would pick me up right where she dropped me off and I would tell her all about my first day.
This gap, between my story and Zahra’s, captures this concept of privilege that so deeply offended me when I first heard about it. It is to no fault of Zahra that her first day played out how it did. It was to no credit or fault of mine that my first days looked how they always did. Life is not fair and we can all clearly see that. But a lifetime of exposure to such vastly different circumstances changes the entire course of one’s life. I grew up in a home where my mom spoke English, where she had the flexibility to volunteer at school and know my teachers and classmates. We lived in a middle class suburb with great schools. She had time to go over my homework with me and taught me to read long before Kindergarten. I was signed up for ACT prep courses and started visiting colleges when I was 16. My family could afford travel soccer and I had a ride home after school when there were National Honor’s Society meetings. Did I work hard? Absolutely. Are there people for whom hard work, intelligence, and skill does not even get an opportunity to flourish because of their environment and circumstances? Unfortunately, all the time.
Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it this way: “I did not understand it until I looked out on the street. That was where I saw white parents pushing double-wide strollers down gentrifying Harlem boulevards in T-shirts and jogging shorts. Or I saw them lost in conversation with each other, mother and father, while their sons commanded entire sidewalks with their tricycles. The galaxy belonged to them, and as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs.” These words are still sinking in for me months after I first read them.
So friends, here’s a few things I am slowly learning from my experience living in refugee housing with an up close view at a way of life I had never even come close to understanding: Be slow to get defensive. Ask questions. Engage in dialogue. Listen to the stories of others. Be willing to believe them when their life sounds nothing like yours. Step outside of your comfort zone. Experience other’s realities up close. When others let you into their pain and suffering, believe them. Be empathetic. When a lifetime of systematic oppression leaves someone feeling angry – try to understand. Be a friend. Be kind. Be slow to anger. Be willing to have been wrong. Respect the hustle. Stand up for others. Stand with others. Let their trials weigh on your heart; celebrate their victories. Seek unity. Advocate for and empower- with your words, your actions, your time, your self. Love widely and deeply. It’s time we begin the long, painful process of building bridges where fires have been burning for far too long. It will take time, it will take humility, it will take nothing short of the radical and far-reaching love of Christ. But every movement in history starts with day one- and today feels like a great day for a first day.