How Do We Use Our Privilege?
It’s not easy to acknowledge our own privilege. In fact, it can be down right uncomfortable. Harder still is the process of figuring out what to do about it—how to move beyond feeling guilty, paralyzed, or too small to fight the system.
Since George Zimmerman’s acquittal over the weekend, there has been an outpouring of support from people on social media: “I am Trayvon Martin,” has been a common tweet. The message here is clear: “It could have been me who was shot dead.” Large numbers of men and women have said exactly the opposite. An entire tumblr blog is dedicated to those who are NOT Trayvon Martin. The writers acknowledge their own privilege by drawing attention to the reality that safety and security are often correlated with, and determined by, skin color. At the top of the blog it reads, “It's not enough to know you aren't Trayvon. What will you do to change our country?”
The struggle for social justice involves going beyond what is easy, taking actions that are often risky. I find it helpful to have role models to remind me of the work that needs to be done, and often IS done, by people of privilege. The Jewish Women's Archive website is brimming with just such role models—hundreds of examples of women who did not let their privileged positions keep them from taking courageous action. JWA gives us a look at how our foremothers reconciled the complicated relationship between privilege and activism.
For example, these two women came from means they used to make the world a better place.
Myra Kraft was the daughter of one wealthy businessman and the wife of another. Throughout her 45-year marriage to Bob Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, she found ways to help people who were not as lucky as she was. As you can read in We Remember, Myra leveraged her privilege to give back in a myriad of ways.
“My parents passed down that you give back. That's the way I was raised," she said. "If you are fortunate to be able to give back you should do it. If not in money, then in time."
“It’s easy to write a check,’’ she told the Boston Globe in 2007. “But this is what … my occupation is. I don’t know how to play bridge, nor do I want to learn how to play bridge. This is what I do.’” (Read on!)
Polly Cowan also came from a world of privilege. “My mother loved the glamour of that world," one of her children wrote. "I can recall watching her dress for the evening, especially one black gown, a Givenchy I believe, with beautiful pearl earrings, necklace, and bracelet. Every New Year's Eve [my parents] hosted a large and elegant party, and she reigned over the event in some glorious outfit or another.” Yet it wasn’t her glamor that makes her a hero in the Civil Rights Movement but her actions that crossed cultural and racial lines.
Polly and a black friend developed a unique community organizing project known as “Wednesdays in Mississippi.” The project brought northern women to southern communities to work with southern women in the fight for equal rights. The northern women flew to Jackson, MI on Tuesdays, traveled across the state in inter-racial teams on Wednesdays to work with freedom schools, and returned home on Thursdays. Many of the women involved came from what Cowan called the “Cadillac crowd,” but that did not stop them from defying cultural convention in the name of what was right. (Read on!)
I could name dozens of other women who used their privilege to enact change. Profiles of women like Emma Lazarus, Gertrude Weil, Hannah Greenbaum Solomon, Andrea Bronfman, and Sally Lilienthal can all be found on jwa.org.
Reading about the choices they made helps me see that privilege can make you a powerful advocate for social justice. If we are willing to acknowledge our privilege, we can use it to change the world.