Dear College Students,
Happy Thanksgiving! You may be tired of stories about Pilgrims and Puritans, so consider instead a word you’ve heard and probably spoken about: privilege. You may have even accused someone of being privileged. But do you really know what privilege is? Can you describe it?
Privilege is, by all accounts, bad. It denotes a form of unauthorized advantage, illicit power, or unearned status and describes unjust circumstances. A privileged person may, wittingly or unwittingly, demean others or fail to appreciate the difficulties — social, financial, or otherwise — faced by those without (or with less) privilege.
Privilege has become a term of attack. Consider the imperative: “Check your privilege!”
As an accusation, privilege foments feelings of guilt and anger in the accused. Naturally, people grow defensive when they are called privileged, especially if they have worked hard to get where they are today.
Imagine you’re a poor, white, working-class boy from Alabama (my home state) who has labored your way through college and into your first job. It’s a good job — in insurance, let’s say — and you’re finally earning a respectable paycheck.
You’ve grown up on a rural farm, in a modest house, shared a bedroom with three siblings, and studied late into the night for years, working odd jobs on the side. Now you’re told your accomplishments — including your new insurance gig — were not merited but merely the result of privilege, of some institutional or systemic advantage common to anyone who looks like you.
How would you feel?
Let’s take it a step further.
Your parents were encouraging and nurturing; they instilled in you the values of tenacity and diligence and the virtue of hard work. They were good to you. They raised you right. They never abused you. Had you been born into other circumstances, you might not be the person you became.
Are you privileged? Is it wrong, immoral, or unfair for you to hold your position or to benefit from your parents’ instruction? You have loans and credit card debt, so you can’t just surrender your job to someone less fortunate in the name of justice or equality. You need the money and will spend it responsibly. And wouldn’t your employers and clients prefer to have you, the proven achiever, helping them?
The years you devoted to pursue your goals were difficult and unpleasant. It would have been easier to kick up your feet and relax, maybe watch a little television after a long day’s work rather than pushing yourself to read Shakespeare, study for exams, or learn calculus. You could have chosen leisure or pleasure rather than the discipline necessary to advance your career. But you chose discipline. Shouldn’t your parents be commended rather than maligned for sacrificing on your behalf and imparting wise lessons?
Yet someone is angry at you for something you can’t help, for immutable characteristics you did not select, such as your race or family. They’re angry because your parents and teachers inspired you to work. They demand that you forfeit a portion of your earnings or your property and give it to strangers you do not know and will not meet.
Is this right? Is this moral?
Here’s one reason why the term privilege is misguided: it often irresponsibly triggers negative emotions for divisive political purposes. Its goal is to enrage, not to clarify or understand. If we want to be loving and compassionate, we might reframe privilege in terms of blessings. The latter involves feelings of gratitude and appreciation.
Our less secular forbears understood blessings as favors bestowed by God. “God is able to bless you abundantly,” says 2 Corinthians 9:8, “so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” Blessings are good; they’re gifts from heaven, from God himself.
Our Constitution was created, in part, to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” The notion of blessings is deeply embedded in Christian teaching and closely related to the concept of grace. No one deserves heaven; we’re all sinners. But Jesus Christ died so that anyone can inherit his eternal kingdom.
Why not stop thinking in terms of privilege and start thinking in terms of blessings? Doing so could lead us out of envy, resentment, hate, and jealousy. It might make us thankful and thoughtful rather than resentful and outraged.
If you were, in fact, born with blessings that others don’t have, don’t feel guilty or ashamed about it. Just know that to whom much is given, much is required. Help those in need. Use your blessings to bless others. Invest in your community. Love your friends and neighbors. You might just discover that true blessings are found in the giving.
Allen Mendenhall is associate dean of Faulkner University Thomas Goode Jones School of Law and executive director of the Blackstone & Burke Center for Law & Liberty. Visit his website at AllenMendenhall.com.