white privilege

i’m privileged, thanks

Full disclosure: this week’s post is a detour … sort of. It’s about the health of communities—and it’s mostly about privilege.

It’s been a week (and a few months) of rage and grief in this country—it’s even hard to say “our country” because really, who is this “we?”

And words matter.

It’s why I start client sessions with, “What’s new and good?” not “How are you?”

“How are you?” became meaningless a long time ago: it’s asked when we really aren’t expecting anything but “Fine.” and “Good.” and “Great.” When we really don’t want the answer to be anything else because who wants to listen to the truth?

the pandemic

Since the pandemic arrived in America (I’m still waiting to hear a news flash that it actually started here), we have watched people struggle with and die from the virus. Some of us know a few people who have caught and/or died from it. And some of us know many.

In Washtenaw County, where I live, the statistics as of June 4, 2020 are jarring—and not because of the number of cases or deaths:

  • Broken down by ZIP code, the number of lab-confirmed cases runs this way: 138, 91, 101, 77, 48, 32, 3, 7, 17, 8, 5, 8, 71, 7, 34,21, 326, 345, 1, 1, 3.
  • The county has had a total of 1,617 lab-confirmed and presumed cases.
  • The two counties in bold claim 787 of those cases. That’s 49%.

That’s right: forty-nine percent of the county’s cases are in the two ZIP codes that lie in Ypsilanti and have a higher percentage of low-income residents and people of color, mostly Black or African American.

How are you? I’m privileged, thanks.

the violence

Within 24 hours of the death of George Floyd, a woman in Ypsilanti was punched by a sheriff’s deputy. She’s Black, he’s White.

The protests following these (and many other) incidents have been mostly peaceful and have not touched my quiet suburban neighborhood.

How are you you? I’m privileged, thanks.

are you privileged?

There are many excellent explanations of what it means to be privileged (or to have privilege)—one of the most recent ones I’ve seen is this piece in Yes! Magazine.

And from James Baldwin and bell hooks to some of our newest poets, like my friend Will Jones III, there are powerful voices that speak to the Black experience in America and what is asked of those of us who are White.

One of the most powerful books I’ve read recently is Mikki Kendall’s Hood Feminism, a no-punches-pulled indictment of mainstream feminism from its founding days to the present.

All of this writing is beautiful and powerful.

None of this reading is pleasant. None of it is comfortable.

And that’s the point: privilege is comfortable and pleasant … and blind.

questions + answers

Many people I know are talking about 2020 as being one big wake-up call—for the nation (can we still call ourselves that?) and the world.

This morning’s quote from Gratefulness.org brings this reminder from Zora Neale Hurston:

There are years that ask questions and years that answer.

It’s hard to say what 2020 is—question? answer?

I’m inclined to think that it’s both an answer to the 2016 election and a question as we head into this fall’s election.

(Is it me, or have we been blessed with relative silence on the campaign front because of the pandemic and the protests?)

This year (and it’s not even half over!) has made me mindful of my own privilege, thoughts, words, and deeds in a way I’ve never been before, and I’m trying to take this mindfulness with me into whatever I’m doing.

openings + closings + middles

Words matter, and as small as it is, the act of writing emails has become an exercise in mindfulness—and what a privilege it is to have this exercise rather than think about where my next meal is coming from, whether my family will have shelter, whether we will be able to afford care if we get sick.

How are you? I’m privileged, thanks.

And yet, how we do anything is how we do everything.

So I’ve been wrestling with how to open my communications: “How are you?” is definitely out. “What’s new and good?” feels tone-deaf. “I hope you’re well” puts a burden on the recipient to not disappoint me.

And how to sign off: “All the best” seems a bit dismissive in these times—where’s the good, much less the best? During the pandemic, “May you keep healthy” worked, and I’ve recently updated it to “May you keep healthy and safe.”

What I’ve learned from listening and reading and in the last few weeks is that as twisty as the openings and closings feel, the middles remain the simplest to write because they align so closely with my inclinations as a health coach:

  • Ask more questions
  • Give less advice
  • Listen to other people’s stories
  • Don’t be so quick to tell your own

And the two most important questions to ask—as a coach and a person of privilege—are:

  • What do you need?
  • How can I help?

make the connection

To me, it seems that those of us with privilege have two assignments:

  1. Acknowledge that we are privileged.
  2. Find a way to use it for the greater good—that means the good of all people.

If you’re privileged, how does that look for you?

And if you’re not, what do you need? And how can I help?

Comments

  1. Cynthia L Ives

    Liza, this post was powerful; thank you for writing this. I am privileged. What does that look like for me? 1. I can consider not returning to my job in the classroom, a place I feel I can do so much good, because I may not feel safe there while my state’s COVID cases are climbing since we began re-opening the economy. 2. I don’t recall a time that I ever felt fear for my safety around people in authority. 3. I have never been stressed about maintaining food and shelter for my family. I am uncomfortable being so privileged and acknowledging discomfort is a start but it is not enough. I, like you, am reading and engaging in conversations that are uncomfortable. Knowledge for now, action to come.

    1. Elizabeth Baker

      Thank YOU, Cyndi, for not being afraid to engage at this time. One of the most beautiful pieces of advice I heard recently was that this is not the time for White people to pass the mic; it is the time for us to not even pick it up to begin with. Trying to stay in this uncomfortable space and time and learn from it—love your concluding sentence: knowledge now, action later.

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