Privilege is a difficult topic to discuss, but it is impossible to ignore as a white, Christian, Heterosexual, American male living in rural, sub-Saharan Africa. At first it is hard to acknowledge when you have it. Then, it is difficult to know what to do with it. I think a good start is to discuss what privilege is and what it isn’t.
I never went to the best schools, and I did not come from what most Americans would call a wealthy family. Having privilege does not mean that you have an unfair advantage, but that you do not have an unfair disadvantage. I went to undergrad for free. I had scholarships in choir, art, and leadership. I used to think that I was rewarded for my merit, but now I know that those scholarships were also the results of certain privileges that I had. My high school had a decent enough choir and drama program to provide me with enough training for a scholarship. I had a father who was always present and supportive who taught me about character and leadership. I did not have to work in high school or support my family, which meant that I had enough freedom to participate in extracurricular activities. My so-called “merits” would not have been cultivated without the privileges which were afforded to me as early as the day I was born.
I am not saying that I did not work hard or that I did not earn my scholarships. I am saying that others who are born without privilege could work twice as hard as I did and have no chance at a college education, especially when you consider the extra money that art students are expected to pay for art supplies for each of their classes. Even if I didn’t get scholarships, I could have taken out loans on my parents’ credit. I became aware of this privilege in grad school when I saw St. Louis City and North County students who don’t even have access to a high school education. Privilege has a lot to do with access, and many people don’t have it.
Living in Rwanda makes me even more aware of my privilege. The fact that my passport says USA on it means that I can basically go anywhere I want. So long as I can pay for it, almost any country in the world will give me a visa. If my passport said Rwanda I would have very little chance of ever leaving East Africa. If a Rwandan student wants to get a college degree in art they must leave their country entirely. Even in High School, most of my Senior students were kicked out of class for lack of school fees last week. They do not have the same access to education that I had. Sadly, many African American students actually have less access to quality education than my students in Rwanda.
My wife and I talk a lot about what we can do about privilege. A person without privilege is not someone to pity or to “save.” They can achieve success without being helped, but they often lack access. When a young black woman has the same merits that I did, she should have the same access to opportunity. When we return to St. Louis we want to do work that increases access to education. We don’t exactly know what that will look like, but it seems like a reasonable goal.
I sometimes get backlash from my white friends when I mention white privilege. I think that they are afraid that black people will get more than them, or that I am implying that white people deserve less than they have. This is the opposite of what I mean by white privilege. I simply mean that white people get what they have rightfully earned, and black people don’t.
Cover Photo by Nitram242