We Often Forget Our Privileges

Panda resting on a log. Photo by Amu00e9lie Rec on Pexels.com

Earlier this week a friend messaged asking for permission to vent. Of course I said yes., This is how I learn what is happening in other places. She’s also a good friend who doesn’t complain to complain; she works hard and has solid connections and intel into different communities than I do so her venting gives me a window into other people’s thoughts.

My friend, Susan (her chosen alias name) told me about how staff at her school are asking for help, but some parents are saying no and hiding behind the excuse it isn’t their job, this is something the school district or state should pay for, if parents step in and volunteer it let’s government off the hook and makes it harder to advocate for in the future. Susan went on to share some parents were also saying if they volunteered at their own school it creates an “inequitable system” since other schools – namely schools with more students of color – don’t have the same volunteer pool. My friend got tired of their excuses. She explained to me part of her frustration comes from remembering what education was like in her home country: “[C]oming from an immigrant perspective, we are SOOO spoiled here. School buses are a luxury. Special education is a dream, even the crap at the [school district isn’t that bad]!”

She went on to say that often the ‘equity’ she sees these parents talking about only extends to those in their immediate circles and can be used as a convenient excuse – such as saying we shouldn’t do something because it will exacerbate inequities across the system (my answer is yes, AND we sometimes need to think deeper). Susan shared “[W]hen you talk about equity and wanting ever kid to have access to the same things, why aren’t you thinking of the children in our home countries? Where does your idea of equity extend to?” Her point being many times we are myopic in our views around the equity, we only see what is in front of us and not fuller pictures.

We Often Forget Our Privileges

Susan pointed out and reminded me having functioning schools is a privilege in many communities. In the west we often see this as a right and not a privilege. The same with many other basic infrastructures – basic health care, roads, electricity and water – I take these basic parts of modern life for granted. Perhaps we should remember these are privileges of living in western countries. When we think of them as privileges we will also remember that we must work to maintain them versus becoming complacent and complaining when they don’t work as we want them to. These privileges, such as public education, did not happen by chance. It took many decades and investments of time to get to this place where we have schools that function the way they do.

Education and other basic services such as health care are not perfect. They often do not serve our Black and Brown relations equally. The privileges do not extend equally.

Advocacy Change is a Looooonnnng Game

Because we know privileges do not extend equally across race, we need people with privileges to extend themselves to do both help people now AND to advocate for the long term. We’re smart people who can do both at the same time.

As Susan told me about parents whining and using the excuse they need to advocate for more money so they don’t have to step in volunteer I could hear her growing frustration. Advocacy takes time, it is sloooow, it is a long game. Even during COVID where we can sometimes accelerate advocacy to meet emergency needs, it is still a long game in the sense people need immediate relief. We’re still in the middle of a pandemic and especially in the education sector conditions change every other week. Thus, we need to step in and help where we can, and advocate for longer term fixes.

As Susan pointed out it is a privilege to have functioning schools and if we want them to be better we have to extend ourselves to make them better – and not just for our own kids but for all the kids. Sometimes this means volunteering to help others, such as if you’re worried about creating inequities between schools instead of volunteering at your own school volunteer at another school that needs help.

While I wrote earlier we need to remember education is a privilege when we’re advocating this is where we get to argue it is a right. I’ve watched and stood with colleagues who make these arguments to build Washington’s early learning system over the past 15 years, similarly with K-12 education system. We’ve had to convert policy makers thinking to understanding child care isn’t a privilege it is a necessity if we want a functioning economy.

Why this Matters to Race

I haven’t put much of this into a racialized context, so here it is… those of us with different forms of privilege – white privilege, literate, some form of education, internet privileged, etc. often can spot problems and think we know how to fix them. Yet, we don’t pause to reflect on how our privileges intersect with the problem. Are we trying to solve a problem so it benefits us first? Are we trying to fix something because we feel aggrieved? Are we trying to fix something in the name of someone else – people of color, people with disabilities, immigrants? Instead of working off that privilege maybe we need to step up and do some of the smaller actions that build relationships and immediate help so we can learn more about the problem, then use that knowledge to advance advocacy efforts in partnership with people who are impacted, especially Black and Brown people. There is a lot more to say on advocacy, but we’ll save that for another day. In the meantime, stop using ‘equity’ as an excuse to not do something.

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I am writing from the ancestral lands of the 29 federally recognized and non-federally recognized tribes in now Washington State, including the Coast Salish people — Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, and Native American organizations that have treaty rights and have been here since time immemorial. I give my thanks to the elders, Native and Indigenous colleagues and relations, and the land itself. Fakequity pays “rent” to Native organizations in Washington and Hawaii; a small action to hopefully repair and work to be in more justice based relations.