Are both of your parents still married?
Did you grow up with a father figure in your home?
Did you have access to private education?
Did you have access to a free tutor growing up?
Did you ever have to worry about your cell phone being shut off?
Did you ever have to help mom and dad with the bills?
Did you not have to pay for college despite not showing great athletic ability?
Did you ever have to wonder where your next meals are coming from?
These questions aren’t mine. They’re taken from this video that I saw recently. It shows a group of youths racing against each other, but with each of the above questions that can be answered with “yes”, you get to take two steps forward. 16 big steps in a 100 yard race is a lot. And it shows that some people are simply more privileged than others. I found that very inspiring and decided to reach out to a couple of my friends. The following conversation between my friend A. and me ensued:
“Is there anything you’d like to say about the topic ‘privilege’?”
“What do you mean? It’s a thing. The end.”
Well, yes. I do believe however that you can go just a tiny bit deeper into that topic. Which is what I’d like to do.
Looking at the above questions, I get to answer every single one with yes. My parents are still happily married and people that I look to when it comes to “how to have a great relationship”. I’ve had a father figure in my life all my life. I went to a private high school and got private math tutoring in my senior year. I paid for my phone bills myself, but I had plenty of money to do so thanks to my parents. I never had to help with the bills; all the money that I earned working (and I did work a lot) I was able to keep myself, which has enabled me to live a quite luxurious lifestyle. I didn’t have to pay for college — not because my parents did, but simply because I’m very privileged to live in Germany, a country where all higher education is basically free. And I’ve never had to worry about my next meal — only whether it’d be suitable for my slow-carb diet. Oh, and I am a Caucasian male — a “white dick”, if you will.
TL;DR: I’m privileged as fuck. I’m probably as privileged as it gets. I’m not proud of it. You can’t be proud of things that you didn’t work for. But — and that’s a quite unpopular opinion in Germany — you also shouldn’t feel any need to apologize for anything that you were born with.
Short aside: In Germany, there is still an inherent feeling of guilt being instilled in the people about all the things that happened during WW2 and the holocaust. In high school, you spent the majority of the time in history class learning about these matters. This is very important, but also leads to feeling guilty about something that YOU as a 16 year old kid 70 years later absolutely had NO influence on. National pride in Germany is (outside of the FIFA World Cup) basically nonexistent. There’s no reason to feel proud because you’re German, but there’s also no reason to feel guilty about being German. That’s simply the way it is, and you had absolutely no influence on that.
The same is true with privilege. I’m not gonna apologize that I’ve had (and have) all these things. It’s not about feeling guilty. It’s about feeling and showing appreciation. I am so incredibly thankful that I’ve had all these things growing up, that I’ve never had a traumatic experience, that my parents have supported me through all my crazy endeavours. I’m very much aware that that’s not normal. This awareness is the key to the two lessons that I’d like to share with you today:
Not everybody has the same amount of privilege as my peers and I do. That, however, is something that you only realize if you actually go out and talk to people from all backgrounds. Growing up in very sheltered environments, it’s sometimes very hard to do as your social circle will purely consist of people like you. I had an “aha”-moment when I went to high school in the US. It was a public high school in the countryside of beautiful North Carolina. In Germany, the school system is very different from the American one, as students are separated into different tracks at age 10. If you’re part of the high-performing, university prep track AND go to a private high school, you move in a very sheltered environment. Public high school in the states is the exact opposite — literally everybody goes there, from the smart people who are going to an Ivy League school on a scholarship to mentally disabled people. Black, hispanic, white, Asian. Everybody’s there. I made the following realization learning about the backgrounds of people whose parents aren’t professors, doctors, lawyers or C-level executives: “holy shit this is really interesting”.
The same experience was even further enhanced by running social projects in Rwanda and Brazil, where I had the chance to work with unemployed and homeless people (we taught people how to make glasses for less than one dollar and built a business around it — learn more here. I’ve also covered my experience in Brazil in great detail). Nowadays, I work with unemployed nurses from Italy, creating opportunities for them to have a perspective in life.
What I’ve learned from all these people is that most of the problems that we’re having aren’t actually problems. No, our problems are induced by the wealth of opportunities that we have, by the material wealth that we possess. Don’t know if you want to be a doctor or an actor? Might seem like a hard, life-changing choice, but in the end you have the chance to become either a doctor or an actor. The vast majority of people in this world doesn’t even have the chance to be either of these professions. The same is true for material possessions: it’s a big issue when your iPhone is broken that really keeps your mind going. Well, guess what: no iPhone = no problem. The less you have, the less you have to worry about it being stolen, broken or outdated.
The worries that we have are mundane compared to the worries of most other people. They also cause us to be a lot less happy than we possibly could be. We take what we have for granted and only see the negative aspects of life, whereas we should be showing a great deal of appreciation for what we already have. Appreciating what you have is what makes you happy. And talking to people that are less privileged helps a great deal to realize that.
Use your privilege to create an impact
We are born and raised with our privileges. As sufficiently stated, that’s a given. What isn’t a given, though, is what you do with them. What do you do with your privileges? How do you use your time, your education, your energy? Are you trying to have a positive impact in the world? Or are you simply running in the treadmill of the life that you’ve been taught to live? This, of course, is up to each and every one themselves. I wouldn’t judge anyone if they simply pursue what they think is right — after all, everybody is entitled to their opinion.
I believe that if you’re blessed with all these privileges, it’d be a shame not to share them with the world. There are a million ways to have an impact. You can give money. You can give your time. You can give your skills. Or you can dedicate yourself to having an impact full time, by teaching, working in philanthropy or running a social business. There are so many things in our world that can be changed for the better, and if you already have all the right prerequisites, it’ll be a lot easier to have an impact.
So yeah. Be curious. Use your privilege. And don’t feel bad because you have them. Because, after all, privilege is a thing. The end.