a privileged position

Recently a friend shared a web post on privilege, pointing to the reality that humans, by virtue of qualities of birth beyond individual command or control, e.g., gender (read: male), race (read: white), affluence (read: rich and educated), nationality (read: American), and combinations thereof, possess unspoken, often unconscious economic, environmental, political, and social advantages.

As I read the article, I was reminded of a passage addressing this issue from my June 2008 novella, The Makings of a Memorable Life. (Since 2006, I’ve been writing these works of fictional prose for personal pleasure and the exercise of my imagination.) I share the episode.

The characters: Madeleine Katharine Fitzgerald, 26, only child of a prominent Atlanta family of attorneys, a graduate of Cornell University and law school. Carl Antony Thomas, “Cat”, 21, born to a farming family on the outskirts of the fictional small town of Robardsville, SC, recently completing his sophomore college year, his matriculation having been delayed by family struggles and personal strife.

The scene: Washington, DC, 1971 (not long after the end of the formal Civil Rights Era and the emergence of the Black Power movement and the April 1968 rioting in DC and 110 American cities, the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., that made unmistakably visible and palpable the all-consuming rage in many a heart and soul). Cat is visiting Madeleine, who works in DC. They return to her apartment following dinner with one of Madeleine’s clients and friends, Dorothea Jackson, who, meeting Cat for the first time, hardly veiled her skepticism about mixed raced couples.

+

Entering the apartment, swiftly Madeleine turned, closing the door; leaning against the wall, sighing, trying to release the terrible discomfort she had harbored all evening. “I’m sorry, Cat. I just don’t understand.”

I do. The idea that people need to stay with ‘their own kind’ isn’t held only by white folk. Black folk, some of us, believe it, too.” His sadness suddenly was eclipsed by an explosion of energy and anger. “And if I’m a ‘good man,’ a ‘good black man,’ why do I want a white woman? Am I rejecting women of my own race?” Gesturing madly, speaking to some unseen audience of inquisitors, he paced about the room, seeking without success a comfortable place to stand, without and within. “Do I think black women are inferior? No! Less beautiful? No! Less attractive than white women? No! Have I bought into the white culture’s definition of what is beautiful? No, I have not!”

Madeleine was overwhelmed by the vigor of his oration, the tenor of his voice. “I never would think those things about you!”

“Of course you wouldn’t. You’re white. It wouldn’t ever occur to you.” Standing still, he looked into her eyes. “It doesn’t have to occur to you.”

She hadn’t quite understood what he was saying, but felt he had misunderstood her expression of confidence in him. The conversation having turned in a perplexing way left her feeling lost, anxious, and defensive. “What do you mean, Cat?”

“It’s the privilege of being white in America, especially if you’re privileged. And you are, Madeleine! You don’t have to think about what you have or don’t have because you’ve always had whatever was considered valuable. In fact, you…not you, Madeleine, but you, white people, always have had the power to define what was valuable. So, you don’t have to think about whether you’re buying into someone else’s definitions. They’re all yours! Money. Opportunity. Society, you know, family and friendships that were given to you at birth. Even dreams! You’ve always been able to dream without having to pay a price for it. The price of having a dream, but not being able to fulfill it. You always could dream and make it come true!” Again Cat strode around the room, his arms flailing, his voice rising and falling in accord with the overflow of his anger and sorrow.

She never had seen him like this and it, he frightened her. What scared her most was her sense of the divide between them. One she hadn’t thought about, even given their experiences and encounters with those whose bigotry and racism was pronounced. One, given what he had said, she believed he must have thought about many times. “You’re right, Cat. I haven’t…I don’t think about these things. Definitions of value or beauty. Do you? Do they occur to you?”

“Of course they do! I’ve asked and answered myself many, many times, especially once I knew I had fallen in love with you.”

And?” Apprehensive, she bent forward, not sure of his reply and knowing she had to ask.

“No. I’ve already said that I don’t believe white is the standard of beauty. I don’t believe I’ve opted for the dominant culture’s description of what is good and fine or desirable. At least, not consciously.”

“I think I understand that. As hard as it is to hear.”

“Yeah. Like a fish in water breathing through its gills.” Coming to rest, his turn to lean against the wall, his hands stuffed in his pockets, he exhaled. “It’s hard to know at any moment how much of the environment is inside you or out.”

Advertisements

race & class

Following the August 9 shooting death of Michael Brown, I have read a number of opinion pieces and social media conversations suggesting that the heart of the matter involves not only race, but also class. Economic disparity between the races has been adjudged as pronounced an impetus as racial animus for the clamors for justice.

A Jesus story comes to mind…

rich man & LazarusLazarus, a poor man, lays his famished, ulcerated body at the gate of a man who is bountifully rich, yet abundantly blind to human need. Both die. Lazarus goes to a place of succor. The rich man, tormented in Hades, begs first for comfort, then that a warning of agonies to come be sent to his brothers so they might mend their avaricious ways. The reply to each request: “No.” The denial of heavenly help is not for a lack of compassion, but rather because a cosmic impassable chasm separates the eternal abodes of solace and suffering.

This tale, for me, reflects current day circumstance, especially regarding the ever-widening gap separating poor and rich. One lens through which to view this worldly chasm is race. This past July, The African American Economic Summit, held in Orangeburg, SC, charting the rise in black unemployment and the decline in black homeownership and income, took particular note of a white-black wealth disparity of more than 20 to 1. However, regardless of the position or perspective, that old aphorism abides: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  chasm between poor & rich

As a follower of Jesus, the one anointed to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy, “to bring good news to the poor”, and the one who told a story in which the poor man is given a name (a sign of Jesus’ recognition of Lazarus’ identity and Jesus’ identification with Lazarus), I am called to stand on the side of the poor, continuing  his ministry of preaching, through word and deed, good news with my sisters and brothers in material need.

The cosmic message of Jesus’ tale holds fast. Between this world and the next (whatever that may be), a great chasm is fixed. Therefore this life is my time to act for the sake of those in need, for beyond the veil of death, I will have no chance and no choice to do anything.