Did you know oldest siblings can be jerks? Neither did I. Because I am an oldest sibling and never saw myself as jerk-like.
Yet I’m surrounded by younger sibling friends who regale me with tales of just how selfish, self-centered, and just plain mean their older siblings can be. And the more I hear their stories, the more I recognize myself.
I also went from being the oldest sibling in my family to marrying a youngest sibling. Turns out when you’re the spouse of the least powerful person in the family, you not only join him in powerlessness, you’re a step or three lower. Going from the top of the pecking order to the bottom has been a real treat.
As the oldest in my family, I had a lot of voice. Every day after school I regaled my mother and younger siblings with all the adventures of my day. I basically talked for 15 minutes straight, and then in the years of the terrible-forced-upon-Tuan-paper-route-which-ruined-high-school (another story), regaled them with my tales for another hour and a half.
My parents asked my opinion. They confided in me. I even broke up fights between Mama and my sisters, telling Mama she was wrong and continuing their fights while they went to sob in other rooms.
Although my younger siblings have all revolted against my hegemony and to this day delight in poking fun at me and showing their own oomph—it’s taken hearing the stories of my friends’ and husband to see how I privileged I was as the oldest. How much power I wielded, and as a result how much jerk-dom I generated.
So the first problem with privilege is that when we have it, we rarely recognize it. It’s like the air we breathe—we’re used to having people listen, and we’re used to having folks jump when we ask them to, and because that’s the world order, we don’t realize the resentment or pain of those beneath us, we don’t even realize we acted like jerks.
Yet we’re acutely aware when we lack privilege or power—we see the injustice, we feel the powerlessness, we hear how rarely our voices join the conversation.
But there’s one thing I can do–I can listen to the stories of the less privileged.
After the Zimmerman verdict, an African-American colleague sent me a series of posts by Dr. Christena Cleveland, a social psychologist, on “Listening Well as a Person of Privilege.”
They were great. And convicting. I learned a lot. And I’m going to try to listen better.
I suspect most who read this blog are folks of privilege. So friends and readers, I invite you to own your own privilege, read these posts, and reflect on how you can become a good listener. After all, as our country plunges again into a conversation on race it’d be nice if someone actually listened—especially us oldest sibs who’re used to doing all the talking. . .