I want to tell you a very personal story about privilege.
I was raised very comfortably in a middle class home. The only child of two older parents, I attended private schools, enjoyed vacations each summer, had private lessons and endless cultural experiences, and enjoyed a life of plenty. I can't speak to whether or not my parents ever had financial difficulties; if they did, I was unaware of them. My friends came from similar households-- married parents, private schools-- and I saw life from a very middle class perspective. My parents raised me to believe that life was a reflection of our choices, and that if I made the correct choices, I could enjoy the better aspects of life. College wasn't ever presented to me as an option, but, rather, a requirement. I attended the Hampton University, a school with a reputation of being a little on the uppity side, and became a teacher upon graduation. Over the years, I purchased a home, I dated and was engaged, I travelled, and I enjoyed a very comfortable middle class life with middle class friends and middle class experiences.
In 2011, everything changed for me.
My grandmother passed away, and her death sent my life into a tailspin-- I've blogged about it before here, if you'd like to read it. One result of Nana's death was that I left my teaching job and set out on my own to explore entrepreneurship. That was the best and worst decision I'd ever made. There is nothing easy about being an entrepreneur. Starting a business and trying to stay afloat financially are difficult for the most experienced, most prepared businesspeople. I was neither experienced nor prepared. I knew I hated my job, that it was making me physically ill, and I knew there was more to life than what I was doing. I set out on my own, and, much to my naive surprise, my life imploded.
I have had several experiences that have been incredibly transformative for me, and I will write about them in later articles. The one I want to focus on today is called the Department of Social Services.
I was once an incredibly private person, and, in a lot of ways, I still am, but this blog has allowed me to share details of my life that I never thought I would discuss publicly. *takes deep breath* Well. Here we go.
When I discovered that my fancy HU degree and charisma were not enough to keep me from completely drowning financially, and after I foreclosed on my condo and surrendered my prized Camaro to the finance company, I decided that the only options I had for feeding myself and my son and keeping us insured was to go to DSS and file for state assistance. Some time later, after I was unable to keep up with my Pepco bill, I had to go to DSS again to request energy assistance. So here I am, a woman with a comfortable middle-class background, sitting in the Department of Social Services, waiting for hours to meet with my case worker, requesting food stamps and energy assistance. What I discovered as I sat and was serviced started the ball rolling that would eventually change my life.
People don't care about the financially disadvantaged.
I sat across the table from the women interviewing me that were responsible for deciding whether or not I was eligible for services and was appalled at the way they spoke to me. They were incredibly rude, dismissive, very flippant, and extremely elitist, as if they knew beyond all doubt that they were better than I was. In fact, I watched most of the workers at DSS treat people that way. The services that I so desperately needed were delayed by the non-responsiveness of my case worker, who would not return my phone calls and did very little to rectify my situation. I guess it didn't much matter to her; she wasn't the one without electricity. They spoke and acted as if I had something they needed, and regardless of how they treated me, I had to sit and endure whatever they dished out if I wanted the services for which I had applied.
And it wasn't just at the Department of Social Services that I noticed the glaring discrepancies between the middle and lower classes and how they are treated and perceived. Having state insurance, I experienced receptionists who very curtly spat, "Oh, we don't accept that insurance here" and hung up in my ear-- more than once. More than several times. Here I am, a middle class woman having a lower class experience, and I am baffled and completely appalled by the way I was being treated. What I realized is that this is the way that poor people are treated every single day. There were several other experiences that I will speak about later that contributed to my awakening, but slowly, my eyes became opened to a world that I never paid attention to, that I never really knew existed.
I've always had what I've needed. Transportation has never been an issue for me. I've always had access to quality healthcare, to the best education, and to generally kind treatment. It wasn't until I didn't have these things that I began to see how differently the world looked when access to those things became limited for me. Earlier this year, I formed a relationship with someone who is now one of my closest friends, a young woman who experienced a completely different upbringing from mine. She's taught me a great many things this year, but one of the most pivotal lessons she taught came after Pepco disconnected my electricity. I lay in bed, in complete and utter shambles. I cried. And I mourned. And I whined. And I lamented. And I sang every "woe is me" song I knew. She got up from where she was sitting on the bed, lit some candles, and pulled up a chair next to my bed.
"You know how many people get their electricity disconnected every day?" she asked me.
"I don't," I said, "but how would I? This isn't my life," I whined.
She laughed at me. "Well, today it is," she said, "and you need to stop the crying and damn near hyperventilating, wipe the tears, get up, and keep it moving."
She went on to tell me stories of her childhood, how utilities weren't always connected, how sometimes there wasn't enough money for food, but how she learned to make the best of what she had and kept it moving. And, despite the discomfort of being without, life moved forward for her.
"Why isn't it that easy for me?" I cried.
"That's simple. It's called privilege," she responded matter-of-factly.
Now, I'm offended. Privilege? What do you mean? I'm not privileged. But I lay there as she talked to me, and explained in detail how my middle class perspective has never allowed me to see life from a lower class perspective-- until I was forced to live it. And as much as I argued with her and wanted to prove her wrong, I had to admit eventually that she was absolutely right.
We spend so much time talking about and dissecting white privilege that we totally ignore the existence of middle class privilege that exists within the black community. This privilege is toxic, because it creates a deep chasm in the black community. The black experience looks totally and completely different for poor people than it does for the middle and upper classes. I was blessed with the unique opportunity to have a lower class experience, and now that my eyes are opened, I am so sad at what I see.
But now that I see it, I have a responsibility to speak about it. I have a responsibility to speak for the people who sit in DSS for services, only to be stripped of their dignity by those commissioned to help them. I have a responsibility to speak for people who don't have access to healthy foods because there are no grocery stores in their neighborhoods, only liquor stores and carry-outs. I have a responsibility to speak out for the residents in Wards 7 and 8 and in PG County who will possibly be affected by Metro's proposed budget cut that would stop off-peak bus service to communities that are overwhelmingly Black and low-income.
Awareness is a burden. And it's a load I am committed to carry.
I can't tell you how many times I've silently judged people's circumstances without knowing anything about them. "Look at her with all those babies, just living off the state, I bet" and "He's on the corner selling drugs; why can't he just get a real job?" I'd even shake my heads at homeless people, assuming that they'd mismanaged their money or chose drugs over housing. Remember, I was raised to believe that our lives are the sum total of our choices. If people made different choices, I surmised, they'd live different lives. What I did not realize was that statistically, most people born in poverty die in poverty. People are not always victims of bad choices. Sometimes, they are doing the best they can with the lives they inherit, with what they are born into. When I realized this, I was ashamed and completely embarrassed. I'd sat from my comfortable middle class pedestal and judged their circumstances through my privilege.
The lower class, in many cases, are just trying to survive. They are really doing the best they can to stay afloat. They've endured unfair treatment, subpar education, rude workers, limited services, and they've attributed it to the fact that this is what it means to be poor in America. I don't care how little a person has, they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. They deserve access to healthy foods and quality education. They deserve safe schools and dedicated teachers. They deserve the basic human respect that people with money take for granted.
As I sat in DSS, I wanted to say, "Honey listen. I have way more education that you will ever dream of having. I promise you that my net worth (check me out) runs circles around yours. I speak better than you. Do you know who my parents are? Do you know where my son goes to school?" But I couldn't, because I needed food stamps. And I sat there, and was disrespected. And spoken to harshly. And dismissed. And I thought, this is what it's like for them every day? How do you treat people like this just because you assume they're poor? Why would people who work for the Department of Social Services NOT be compassionate and have a heart for the people they come into contact with?
Awareness is a burden because now I can't unsee it.
I am dedicated to making life better in some way for lower class people. I have the education and the resources. I have a voice. I can make things happen for them that they don't have the access to make happen themselves. This article is for my middle class friends. The Black community is in peril, but White America is not the problem. The problem is that we have divided ourselves by class. The lower class is used to being mistreated and disregarded. The middle and upper classes are enjoying the luxuries of a life that they worked hard for (and assume that anyone can have if they they work hard, too.) But one thing I've learned is, "Just because we were all given the same 24 hours does not mean that we were all given the same 'start position' in life. Truly understand a person's 'start position' before you judge them." (This girl is brilliant.)
Privilege affects the way you see the world around you, undoubtedly. And it's okay. The thing about privilege is that most people don't know they have it until something happens that reveals it to them. Some people ever have that revelation. I did. Privilege causes blindness. Blindness, in and of itself, is not a crime.
Let me repeat that. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the finer things in life. Don't ever apologize for what you have. Your privilege is a result of your station in life, and that's fine. Blindness isn't a sin. But once a person's eyes have been opened somehow, and they are given an opportunity to see the world for what it really is, and they do nothing about what they see? That's where the problem is. That's where the crime happens. The world looks so differently when you're looking down than it does when you're looking up. I've been blessed to be in both positions.
The burden of my awareness is what forces me to share these experiences with you.
I would never ask you to feel bad about how you were raised or the life with which you have been afforded. My parents worked really hard to give me the life and the experiences I had, and I am so thankful that they were so dedicated to parenting me and instilling me with morals. Just understand that your worldview-- the perspective from which you see the world around you-- is based solely on who you are and what you've experienced. I learned through my own experiences that it is more than possible to miss huge parts of the human experience simply because you're viewing life through your own lens-- the lens of your privilege-- and you're unable to see things how they truly are for so many people who aren't like you.
The funny thing about privilege: You don't know it exists until someone (or some life experience) reveals it to you. God decided I needed to widen my perspective, so He allowed me to experience life in a way that changed my lens. He very delicately used people and experiences to reveal my privilege to me, and now that I am aware, I am burdened with the responsibility to do all I can to speak for people who don't have the voice, the education, the resources, or, hell, even the faith to speak for themselves. I could list all the things I've been through this year-- Food stamps. Utility cut-offs. Gallbladder surgery. Celiac disease. Anxiety attacks and depression. I've lost friends-- really GOOD friends. Spiritual burdens. But each one of these things is a gift, because each of them have lent to my eyes being opened a little bit more. Through every trial and tribulation, I have grown more and more aware.
Sometimes, I can't believe I'm still standing. But I know it's only because I'm supposed to be a mouthpiece, a speaker, an advocate for people I never EVER paid attention to before.
And this article is my way of passing that burden of awareness to you. I'm not telling you to quit your job, drain your resources, and completely dedicate your life to public service. (I've already done enough of that for all of us.) I'm just inviting you to open your eyes a little wider, to see the world around you from perspectives other than your own, and to be aware that the Black experience looks a whole lot different depending on where your starting point in life is.
As always, I invite your comments and thoughts. Thank you so much for allowing me this space to be vulnerable and to share my life-- my burdens-- with you.
Sometimes I write things that are too short to publish. I needed someplace to put them. Here seems like just as good a place as any...