White privilege — the notion that being white in America bestows an inherent advantage in life that is not available to people of color — has become a controversial and emotional issue, evoking a vehement reaction in some people.
It’s true that there currently exists government and institutional programs designed to give people of color resources and advantages not available to white Americans, programs that were established to help overcome generations of segregation, discrimination, and opprression. There are undoubtedly many reasons for this backlash against the idea of white privilege, and I would like to explore one of them that I think is prominent — the myth of the self-made American man who alone is responsible for his life’s accomplishments.
Lifting one’s self up by the bootstraps and overcoming obstacles is seen as a desirable biography, and it is not uncommon to find examples of people exaggerating the poverty in their background. It makes for a better story than coming from the comforts of a family of means, with no childhood adversity to overcome. Some resent the implication that they “had it easy,” were given an advantage, or were privileged. This is sad, because acknowledging the support and resources that one may have had does not diminish or detract from the accomplishments and successes that are achieved.
We should be grateful for our good fortune. Regardless of circumstances, there is always something for which we can be thankful, and in many cases, so much more. Good things come to us in our lifetime in a variety guises: an opportunity for career advancement or personal improvement; the discovery of a new friend; the accomplishments of one’s family; and a good report card from your doctor, to name a few.
Some of this good fortune is the result of gifts given to us by others, gifts we did nothing to earn and perhaps in some cases, deserve: to be born into a loving and supporting family; to be emotionally and physically healthy; to have the opportunity to acquire an education; or to have a unique talent or creative gift. These are unrelated to wealth and/or material goods. Good fortune can also be the result of our own hard work, taking advantage of our personal resources, and/or overcoming obstacles with a determination to succeed.
We can, and should be, proud of our personal accomplishments. But this pride should be equally balanced by acknowledgement and gratitude for all that has been given to us to help facilitate our success. The pride we experience remains a personal matter, a sense of self-satisfaction with little direct effect on others.
Gratitude, however, has the potential to alter the way we perceive the world and influence the way relate to others. When we are mindful of the gifts we have been given, we are more likely to recognize those who are less fortunate than us, and view them with empathy rather than disdain. When I am mindful of how much my parents have given to me, I am sensitive to those who have not had the benefit of a loving and nurturing family.
My plea is that each of us be mindful of the gifts, blessings, and good fortunes that we may have received and recognize that others may not be so fortunate.
Bill Renzulli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.