Culturally, there has been a lot of conversation about the topic of privilege. Macklemore even wrote a song about it. There are certainly better and worse ways to talk about poverty, inequity, and how to recognize you are blessed with more than a hashtag. But, for all I do think the conversation of privilege often leads somewhere left of a Marxian critique, I also think that it is worth remembering that Christ came to preach the good news to the poor (Luke 4:18, among others), and “blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20, among others). Moreover, the Church has always encouraged those who have more than they need (which is a matter of prudence to determine based on your state of life) to give freely to those who have need of aid. St. Thomas Aquinas even writes that:
There is a time when we sin mortally if we omit to give alms; on the part of the recipient when we see that his need is evident and urgent, and that he is not likely to be aided otherwise; on the part of the one giving, when he has superfluous goods, which he does not need for the time being, as far as he can judge with probability. (ST II-II.32.5 ad 3).
So when we talk about privilege, along with the particular set of cultural ideology that this language carries, it is worth remembering that honestly recognizing that what surplus spiritual and temporal gifts we might have allow us to participate in the virtue of charity under the sense of mercy. And, as this is the Year of Mercy, it seems to be a worthwhile endeavor to explore the opportunities we have to practice mercy. So maybe the idea isn’t checking our privilege, but knowing what our privilege is so that we can better know how to love and serve others.
Having offered this preface, I would like to share one of my favorite senior speeches with you from a senior course I co-teach (with the student’s permission of course). Many of the seniors used their “graduation speech” as an opportunity to reflect on how great their class is- and it is an excellent class. One student, a Catholic whom I have seen at mass many times, took a slightly different route. In a world where “social justice” is too often compounded with “warrior” to make a negative denotation, or too often used derisively against those who might suggest that Jesus told the rich young man to sell all his goods and give to the poor, without mentioning if those poor needed to be “worthy” of the alms by some measure of demonstrated holiness, this student managed to say something truly good. (I have made slight edits to protect student identity and to condense speech for publishing):
As Mr. Nitschke has said, “It is impossible for one man to change the world. However, I believe that one man can change the corner of the world they live in.” As many know, the graduating class of 2016 is a class full of ambition and talent. However, I am not here to discuss our achievements. I am here to educate people on the unfortunate truth of the society we live in and how this class, with all their talent and ambition, can change our corner of the world.
I hope that everyone realizes that we live an amazing life and that a majority of kids at [my high school] are privileged. And I do mean privileged in the sense that you might drive a nice car or that you have a three story house. I mean privileged enough to have food on the table and a roof over your head, to not live in a neighborhood where someone dies from gang violence everyday or where the night is filled with sounds of bullets being fired. By privileged I mean, having someone in your life who cares for your well-being…I hope that everyone realizes that here in [Town], there are hundreds of kids who are addicted to drugs because their addicted parents were careless enough to leave them around their kids. There are kids who are stuck in an unending cycle of poverty and violence who need our help.
While some people believe that those stuck in poverty deserve the life they live, how everything works is that you go to a school that is around the neighborhood you live in. The amount of taxes your parents pay directly correlates to the quality of your school. If your parents are the middle or upper class, they can afford to pay property taxes that goes towards hiring great teachers and faculty members whose goals are in educating and empowering students. If they are in the lower class or live below the poverty line, they cannot afford to pay taxes and surrounding schools are of much lower quality. Kids who were not taught how to read and write as first graders, are continuously passed through the education system [in many impoverished schools], and become sophomores who do not know how to read and write, while in most [wealthy district] schools, you will be placed in academic interventions and work one on one with teachers to learn to read and write. The bottom line is, is that if you are given a great education, you will most likely go to college or be equipped to enter the workforce, and down the line, you will have a job that enables you to sustain your own family and send your children to good schools as well. If… you were never taught to value education, there is a high chance that you will work a minimum wage job for the rest of your life and send your child to school similar to yours.
I would hope that we do not turn our noses up at [people in this situation] and say that they deserve to live in poverty and remain a lot less educated than the rest of us. As President JFK said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Let’s take this education we have received, and the education that we will receive, to make our corner of the world better than we found it. So I am asking computer science geniuses to create computers and donate them to schools that do not have computers. I am asking the amazing videographers who will go on to be movie directors, to make films that show minorities that sports and rapping isn’t the only path they have to be successful. Show them that caring about school isn’t stupid or a waste of time.
People believe what they see and what is constantly reinforced, and if we have people in the media who reinforce that reading and writing are cool, more kids will have a passion to want to learn to read and write. Now, if you’re not an amazing writer or science isn’t your forte, there are still things that you can do to improve your corner of the world. You can petition the huge grocery corporations like Save Mart and Vons, who throw out $165 billion dollars of food a year, to stop throwing out hundred of tons of good food everyday and instead serve them to the poor. Or if you are entering Costco and you see a homeless person on the side of the road begging for help, you can toss in dinner rolls and dried fruits into your cart for them, and give it to them when you leave. You could donate the Vans you barely wore last year to Goodwill or give away your collection of stuffed animals to Make-a-Wish foundation so that little kids who do not have much, can receive a gift at Christmas. You don’t have to be rich, or a computer genius, to positively impact a life.
Realize that we were fortunate enough to attend [our high school], a school that fostered our creativity and pushed us to be the best we can be, and let’s pour our gifts back into the world as a way of saying thank you. Because, just as we don’t deserve this privileged life most of us live, the children born into the projects do not deserve the poverty-ridden life they are living either. To whom much is given, much is expected, and I’m asking the class of 2016…to go out a change our corner of the world. Thank you.
So let’s talk about what privilege really is:
Being privileged means being blessed to sleep in a house where you don’t fall asleep to gun shots. It means having enough food, good food, so that you can perform well academically and athletically. It means being in the position that you can choose to go without so that others might have more. Privilege means being able to walk into a place of worship without fear you will face physical harm, torture, or death.
Privilege is not good or bad- it is how we use it that can be good or bad. Do we buy Starbucks, or do we go without and donate to an organization in the country our coffee comes from that helps create macroeconomies? Do we throw out last seasons clothes because they aren’t cool, or do we donate them to organizations like Catholic Charities when they are in good condition? Do we judge children born in poverty as at fault, and those of us born in wealth as worthy, or do we dare to acknowledge the real humanity found in both the poor and the wealthy, and realize that for those of us “to whom much has been given, much will be required?”
I’m not saying wealth is bad, and my student certainly isn’t saying that either. But wealth, including spiritual wealth, gives you more options than those who have less. So what are you going to do with those options? I would suggest that, rather than check your privilege, you love God with all your heart, all your strength, all your mind, and all your soul, and that you love your neighbor as yourself. And if you need a way to concretize these things, perhaps sacrifice at least some of your possessions to give to those in need. Then, go follow Christ. Don’t check your privilege: live your vocation.