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On Privilege and Personal Power

The first time I can remember ever taking hold of my own power was in third grade. I formed a “lunch bunch”, a group of girls who always sat together at lunch and then hung out together at recess. We had one girl we really didn’t want to be associated with us, so though I can’t remember any of us ever doing anything or saying anything purposely hurtful to this girl, we excluded her and she wanted to be included and that was hurtful in and of itself.

 

Somewhere along the way, we decided we didn’t like how we were acting towards her. We self-corrected, but that experience and the following sorrow I felt for letting my power taint my kindness began shaping the way I viewed and used my power. It was the first time I owned it and the first time I messed it up and the first time I saw the power of having power and the consequences of using it poorly or selfishly.

 

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I’d like to think that I’ve used my power in kinder, more inclusive ways since then, though sometimes, for lack of knowing what to do with it, I have chosen to relinquish it altogether rather then screw it up too much.

 

I’m constantly put off by the potential mistakes I could make with it, the temptation to use it only for shallow, short-sighted purposes, and the unnerving suspicion that I don’t deserve it.

 

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Flash forward about fifteen years after third grade:  I encounter another level of understanding about my power, as I realize how it is also connected to my privilege.

 

I start to see that though some of my power may be something within me – confidence, self-awareness, high social and emotional intelligence, innate leadership or “alpha” qualities – some of it has been given to me simply because I’m an attractive, middle class, blue-eyed, blonde-haired Caucasian, heterosexual, Christian who lives in the Bible Belt.

 

Basically the only thing I have working against me in this arena is my gender.

 

Some measure of the respect, opportunity, benefit of the doubt, attention, and power I have been afforded is based solely on aspects of myself that I did not necessarily develop, generate, or choose. It’s just privilege.

 

I do not regularly have to consider if I am acting “too white” or “too middle class” or “too straight” or “too Christian”. While being a “basic white girl” may make me the butt of a few jokes, it won’t get me arrested. That’s privilege.

 

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The occasions on which I’ve felt as if my race or religion or sexual preferences or economic status put me at a disadvantage or in danger have by far been the exception to the rule – the rule in which those identifying aspects of who I am generally keep me in the good graces of the powers that be. That’s privilege.

 

There’s no social justice movement targeted to my race or religion or social class because we already have the social justices on our side. That’s privilege.

 

No one is trying to create movie characters and children’s toys in my likeness, because they are already in my likeness. That’s privilege.

 

There’s no special day or month designated to people like me because people like me are considered the default person. If you are the default, every day is your day. That’s privilege.

 

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Of course, no amount of power or privilege can insulate anyone from the work of being human. Dealing with our own demons and bearing our own crosses are universal experiences. Struggle and heartache and failure and brokenness have invaded my life just like anyone else. But hasn’t privilege has saved me from extra doses of it?

 

Don’t I have so much right at my fingertips?

 

My initial reaction to this is has been to abandon my power and to try to tamp down or discard anything I have due to privilege. Why should I have anything when so many have so little and I have earned so little of what I have?

 

Why should I enjoy the fruits of my circumstances when I didn’t earn them?

 

Who am I to be here when so many so similar to me, minus my privilege, are over there?

 

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What if I don’t use it right or well? What if this power and privilege that I didn’t earn and don’t deserve become something I abuse? What if I’m too much? Who am I to be so much?

 

But then, who am I to waste what I’ve been given?

 

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Whether I earned any of my power or privilege or not doesn’t really matter – I have it, so I’m charged with the responsibility to use it. Not using it doesn’t honor anyone, it doesn’t mean that someone else will get to use it, it doesn’t change the systems of oppression or injustice.

 

It’s a guarantee that I won’t always utilize my power and privilege perfectly. But who am I to be so self-absorbed that I worry more about my own inevitable failures than I do about what positive things I could do imperfectly?

 

My power and privilege are not my identity. They don’t give me more value than anyone else and using them imperfectly doesn’t lessen my worth. My worth as a human being is exactly equal to every other human being and so, I don’t need to wear my power or privilege like it makes me matter and I don’t need to be afraid of what will happen when I use it. I just need to use it as well as I can.

 

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