In my ten weeks living in the Dominican Republic I spent a lot of time trying to unpack my frustrations. When I would get upset at people throwing trash on the ground or see dirty toddlers wandering the streets crying I would try to step back from my privilege. Sometimes my frustration was reasonable and I knew of a better way to do things. Other times it wasn’t so easy to see what was right. It is a tedious process to peel back the layers of my onion of Americanness. It was worth it though, since it allowed me to make honest and joyful connections with the people there. It also made me a bigger, better person to remove those confining layers holding me back.
But privilege doesn’t explain it all, and what it does explain doesn’t really take you anywhere. America has faults. As a nation through our actions and resultant culture we have committed many sins, and will continue to fail (sometimes failing forward) as our great experiment continues. But we also have so much to be proud of and so much to share with the rest of the world about what we have learned and how we have succeeded. A narrative that rests on privilege – the premise that one set of people has good things because of factors that those people cannot control and that another set of people can’t get those good things as easily because of factors that those people cannot control – is a narrative that will always find fault. No matter who has what, there will always be shame in success and shame in failure and tension between both sets of people.
A better system would tell people who have lots to take responsibility for helping others. Where your “privilege” is a burden of care, and fulfillment of your duty is determined by how much you are able to give back to society. While it is true that privilege shapes who people are and being aware of historical and cultural context is healthy, that still doesn’t solve any problems.
In our rush to use “privilege” to identify and contextualize everything that we do that is harmful to others we are losing sight of values of aspiration like stewardship. We would be better served by constructing a model of aspiration that is inclusive and showed a take on privilege that embodied accomplishments of people of all backgrounds, working together for a common ideal.
This take on equality and aspiration is exactly what won Barack Obama the presidency in 2008 – Hope. He made people feel like his story was our story, and if he could become president, I, and anyone else, could be successful. Somehow that narrative died. The narrative that President Trump used was narrow, fearful, and putative. It is when we aspire together for a vision that enables everyone in this country to have opportunities that we are closest to living up to the great ideal upon which this country was founded.
One of the first lessons you learn if you are trying to become a good listener is that you don’t have to agree with what someone is saying to validate their emotions about it. The Left has treated Conservatives like racist idiot bumpkins for several generations. The Right has treated Liberals like commi pond-scum who just want to take away their guns for at least as long. No one is listening to other opinions and no one is trying to bind us together. The diffusion of our media sources has helped fray the common narrative tying these two worlds together, and instead layers of privileged ignorance about each other slowly grow thicker.