A letter to my 16-year-old son about his privilege
When you were younger, you came home from school upset because a teacher had said:
“All of the Quakers were dead.”
Being Quaker, you described feeling unseen and wanted me to correct the teacher. My response? I was comfortable with your discomfort. Because being who you are in this world has afforded very few opportunities for you to know what it is like to be unseen and unheard, a feeling so common to so many.
As a White, Christian, middle class, well-educated, handsome, smart, athletic, seemingly heterosexual, able-bodied, living in a two-parent, heterosexual, married household, you hold membership in all privileged groups and, therefore, have almost all of the advantages the world has to offer.
Now at 16, you are charting your own course at a time when you could enjoy life free of obligation, eventually growing into the man you will become. But I want something different for you; I want you to choose what kind of man you will be.
You may think it odd for me to ask you to decide what kind of man you will be. Let me explain. Too often, people from majority groups simply arrive at who they will become without making a choice along the way.
You live in a time when women still earn seventy cents for every dollar a man earns, when Black boys face the school to prison pipeline, when people beat gay and transgender people to death for being themselves, and when the quality of one’s education—probably the single determining factor in your future—is predicated on their family’s ability to live in one zip code over another.
You live in a time when people are persecuted for their religious beliefs, when childhood poverty is rampant, when beautiful men and women are photo-shopped to be someone they are not because their natural image is thought to be ugly. You live in a time when what one does for a living is often valued more than who one is as a person and a time when we are in desperate need of peace.
But you also live in a time of hope and activism, and in an environment with parents and family members intentionally working to undo oppression in everyday choice. You have role models in our friends and family who work toward social justice and your faith insists on equality and seeking the truth. You live in a time where social media is an active presence in our lives and can be instrumental both in highlighting areas of need and the work of change makers. You live in a time of abundant choices. And you live with models of those who choose to live their authentic selves when that choice may bring prejudice.
Due to genetics and the decisions of your parents you have all of the privileges in the world available to you. Whether or not you assume these privileges is an open question. Assuming them is easy, simply go through your day with a lack of recognition or lack of care.
Rejecting these privileges will be more difficult because you (like most of us in majority groups), probably do not see them. But be sure: these privileges are provided to you.
You will find yourself in classes where you will raise your hand at the same time as a girl and you will be called on because you are a male presence. You will have an easier time getting dates because of your size and appearance. You will be offered more money for the same job than your sister would have been offered because you are male. You can relish your heterosexuality comfortably, and talk about who you are dating without worrying about others’ reactions. You can celebrate holidays easily, and the language you speak is valued above most in every country of the world.
You need to understand the “other” but it’s not your place to “walk in another person’s shoes.” It is your place to walk next to people, to listen and to learn of their experiences. You will move from being a child encouraged to “speak the truth to power” to a man assumed to be in a place of power. And you should speak the truth to power at all times, work for equity and ensure that others know you are aware of your privileged status and that you want to partner with them to work for equity and inclusion.
Again, these are the reasons I was comfortable with your discomfort when your teacher made the comments about the disappearance of Quakers.
Your feeling unseen and unheard—for even a few moments—had an impact on you. I am asking you to remember and attend to that feeling. Understand that for most people in world, at least one of their social identifiers makes that feeling a daily experience.
I am asking you to decide what kind of man you will actively, thoughtfully, and continually decide to be throughout your life. In doing so, you will make a choice for yourself and widen the path for others to join you.
Choose daily. Choose actively. Choose equitably. Choose with empathy. Choose for the better.
Jen Cort was raised on a commune called The Farm instilling from the earliest ages a desire to work for social justice. Now as a wife and mom to 11- and 16-year-old children, Jen works to keep her White, middle class family grounded in equity work. Having served as a principal, assistant principal, and clinical social worker, Jen now helps schools lives out their missions. With a particular focus on diversity and inclusion, Jen works with students, parents, faculty, trustees, and administrations. Her work has been in Racing Toward Diversity Magazine, Blog Talk Radio, Teaching Tolerance, Start Empathy and Friends Journal. More information can be found at www.jencort.com.