All Americans deserve better. No one cares about me. I met the man who said those words while working as a bartender in the Ozark Mountains of northwest Arkansas. It was a one-street town in Benton County.
The phrase, handed down by my moral superiors, descends recklessly, like an Obama-sanctioned drone, and aims laser-like at my pinkish-peach complexion, my maleness, and the nerve I displayed in offering an opinion rooted in a personal Weltanschauung. But I do condemn them for diminishing everything I have personally accomplished, all the hard work I have done in my life, and for ascribing all the fruit I reap not to the seeds I sow but to some invisible patron saint of white maleness who places it out for me before I even arrive.
Even that is too extreme. So to find out what they are saying, I decided to take their advice. I have unearthed some examples of the privilege with which my family was blessed, and now I think I better understand those who assure me that skin color allowed my family and I to flourish today.
Perhaps it was the privilege my great-grandmother and those five great-aunts and uncles I never knew had of being shot into an open grave outside their hometown. Perhaps my privilege is that those two resilient individuals came to America with no money and no English, obtained citizenship, learned the language and met each other; that my grandfather started a humble wicker basket business with nothing but long hours, an idea, and an iron will—to paraphrase the man I never met: Some business troubles are going to ruin me?
Perhaps it was my privilege that my own father worked hard enough in City College to earn a spot at a top graduate school, got a good job, and for 25 years got up well before the crack of dawn, sacrificing precious time he wanted to spend with those he valued most—his wife and kids—to earn that living.
I can say with certainty there was no legacy involved in any of his accomplishments.
That our success has been gift-wrapped? The truth is, though, that I have been exceptionally privileged in my life, albeit not in the way any detractors would have it. It has been my distinct privilege that my grandparents came to America. First, that there was a place at all that would take them from the ruins of Europe.
And second, that such a place was one where they could legally enter, learn the language, and acclimate to a society that ultimately allowed them to flourish. It was their privilege to come to a country that grants equal protection under the law to its citizens, that cares not about religion or race, but the content of your character.
It was my privilege that my grandfather was blessed with resolve and an entrepreneurial spirit, and that he was lucky enough to come to the place where he could realize the dream of giving his children a better life than he had.
Those who came before us suffered for the sake of giving us a better life. My exploration did yield some results. I am privileged that values like faith and education were passed along to me. But that is a legacy I am proud of.
I have checked my privilege.There is a phrase that floats around college campuses, Princeton being no exception, that threatens to strike down opinions without regard for their merits, but rather solely on the basis of the person that voiced them. “Check your privilege,” the saying goes, and I have been reprimanded by it several times this year.
The phrase,. Hi Erin, Thank you for your essay. I am so sorry for your loss and the loss that it represents to your discipline.
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