Thursday, November 27, 2014

Giving Thanks

According to social scientists, gratitude can help us all lead happier lives.  I have tried to create an atmosphere of gratitude in my family, and I have failed.  I try to give thanks before meals.  My son is not thankful; he is resentful.  Why should he be thankful?

He doesn't seem to understand that it is only by chance he was born a white male in the United States where his chances for survival are greater than his chances for survival as a black male or a female of color or a person living in what we call the Third World.  But guess what?  If he lived in Washington D.C., he could live to be eighty-four while a black male may not live past the age of seventy-one!  (  This privilege is invisible.  He not only can't see it -- it's too abstract for him to grasp.

I don't blame my son -- it is not his fault he cannot appreciate what he cannot see or feel or know as fact.  If he hails a taxi in New York City, a taxi stops.  He doesn't know that taxis don't pull over for people of color.  How can he know these things?

I googled Peggy McIntosh who wrote "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack" way back in 1989.  I remember this article circulating person to person before the Internet, and it is easily available there today.  So I printed out the shorter version, and I began a discussion at my Thanksgiving table.  If I am going to be asked by our culture to share a meal of Thanks, then Thanks has to be on the menu.

I was not met with much interest.  It is difficult to present the topic to white males.  But I presented it anyway, along with my sugar-free dessert, and got a polite nod from my husband and no interest at all from my son.  I announced that we would be learning from the list of invisible (white) skin privileges for the next month as we move toward the end of the year holidays in the hope that we will learn to notice and know what we have taken for granted so that we might better understand our world and become better allies to the people of color who do not share our skin privileges.  I believe that if we can see this invisible privilege as members of the dominant culture, we will be able to make better choices, and we will begin to question our society as conscious, conscientious citizens.

So I am grateful for the opportunity to try to educate myself and my family, and I am grateful to Dr. McIntosh for her brilliant article that opened a conversation years ago that clearly still needs to be continued since we still live in a culture where privilege goes around thinking it did something to deserve all the respect it gets.

Here are the first five privileges on the list:
1.  I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
2.  If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.  (I think this is more class privilege than skin privilege, but it's still privilege.)
3.  I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
4.  I can go shopping alone, most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed. (I assume this means harassed by store personnel.)
5.  I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the newspaper and see people of my race widely represented.  (I assume she means to say represented in a positive light.)

This may seem old hat to many, but I think it's time we discuss it again, for Michael Brown in Ferguson, for Trayvon Martin in Miami, for Eric Garner right here in New York City, and for many more than I could list here.  Let's give more than thanks -- let's give some time to figuring out how to move forward justly in our unjust world.