I once received a lovely e-mail, from a student who expressed her desire to give back to those who have so little something of the abundance with which she is blessed. Her wish to help others is wonderful, and I am deeply impressed with this young woman's commitment to the poor and the marginalized.
There was one thing she said in her missive, however, which is evidently a common sentiment on her campus and one which I asked her to reconsider. She felt, or at least seemed to have felt, that part of her obligation to help the poor arises from the fact that she's "a white, middle class, educated female with a tremendous amount of undeserved privilege."I know students are sometimes encouraged by their professors to think that one's race or gender confer upon one a large measure of undeserved privilege, but to tell the truth I think they're just wrong about this. The idea of white privilege is a shibboleth that is too often used to evoke in whites a sense of racial guilt. In my response to this young woman I tried to explain why I think the guilt she seemed to feel is actually a derogation of the choices and sacrifices made by her grandparents, parents, and herself. Here's what I wrote to her:
Yours is a lovely e-mail, and I think it's wonderful that you want to give of yourself to those who subsist on the margins of society. I wish you well and pray God's richest blessing on your efforts.
I do want to urge you, though, to consider something. Maybe I'm reading a little too much into what you say, but you seem to suggest that your status in society is somehow an undeserved privilege. If that is what you're saying I don't think you should see it that way.
You are what you are and have what you have for a couple of reasons, neither of which you should feel guilty about. First, your parents and/or your grandparents worked very hard, sometimes twelve or more hours a day, I'll bet, to provide you with an opportunity to get an education.
Your status is largely the fruit of their toil, as well as dozens of other important and wise choices they made in life, and it's not something you should feel guilty about. Indeed, I think it diminishes their efforts to think of your status as a consequence of your race. So far from feeling that your privilege is undeserved I think you should be proud of the people who made it possible and grateful for their sacrifices and the choices they made.
The second reason you enjoy the status you do is because, once given the opportunities your parents and grandparents worked so hard for, you had the moral character to make the most of them. You took advantage of the opportunity to get an education, you held yourself to high standards through your teen years, and you had the wisdom to not squander the opportunities you were given.
None of this is a result of your race. I know that some of your instructors think that being white somehow confers an unfair advantage over others in society, but I think that's mistaken. It was doubtless true historically, but it hasn't been the case in the U.S. for a long time. No one has been legally denied opportunity in this country simply by virtue of his or her race for well over fifty years. If people in this country - white, black or brown - languish in poverty it's often because of the choices both they and their parents have made, not the color of their skin.
The fact is that there are lots of African and Asian-Americans who are successful in this society, but no one talks about their "privilege." Instead they talk, as they should, about how hard their parents worked and the ordeals their parents endured in order to give their children a chance to make it in the world. Contrarily, there are whites, blacks and Asians who enjoy historically unprecedented opportunities to make a positive mark in life but fail to do so because they lack the character it takes to make something of themselves.
In other words, you enjoy the status you do, S_, not because you're privileged by your race but because you're privileged to have the parents and virtues you do. It's wonderful to want to "give back" but don't let anyone imply that you should do so out of guilt over your race or class. Your motivation should be your love for God and the conviction that he wants you to be an instrument to help others become what you are.