When I was young, my idea of privilege came from a television show. "Silver Spoons" ran for four seasons on network television and likely solidified every young child of the eighties' crush on Ricky Schroder (apparently it was an early start for Jason Bateman and Alfonso Ribeiro as well). If I had been asked at that time, those formative years from age seven to 11, I'm sure I would have defined privilege as what I saw on TV: life in a mansion with a full-sized train running through every room. My middle class suburban upbringing only saw a life of luxury as defining "have" and "have not". I don't remember much about the show other than how glamorous Erin Grey seemed to me and how Ricky rode in on that train in the opening sequence each week. In hindsight, I see how the antithesis of this idea was represented through the junkyard setting on reruns of the Black comedy "Sanford & Son".
I don't think I would be doing my due diligence in the realm of courage if I refused to explore what privilege means to me today. My husband and I watched Chelsea Handler's documentary on white privilege when it first came out, but much like my childhood understanding, I dismissed it as being celebrity privilege, not race-based. It wasn't until I was delivering meals on a substitute route this week that it really sank in.
On Fridays, I pick up Meals on Wheels from a Baptist church in Como, one of many, their Christianity seeming to be one of the few things which creates a similarity between this Black community and the white world surrounding it. I pack up the food and make my way further west. My regular route consists mostly of apartment-dwellers along with a few senior living facility residents, with two Black women on my list of six clients. While my initial drop-off points are a little run-down, it is nothing like the neglect and decay of much of Como. Every time I drive down one of their streets, another home is being knocked down to make way for a new Habitat for Humanity or HUD home. And by comparison, the clapboard homes being razed in my neighborhood are to make way for luxury homes that aren't even in MY budget.
Tuesday was not the first time I've delivered in the Como neighborhood, but my first visit to some of the stops. It also started further west, but ended up in the heart of Como, near a convenience store that gets even my presumably unbiased blood pumping. Young Black men gather outside and cars drive into the parking lot without parking. Conversations are had through open windows with the telltale lean of cinematic drug deals. For all I know, they are discussing weekend plans. I am, however, also trying not to get stuck in naivete. This is where privilege and bias gets tricky. Safety over suspicion.
I parked just a few houses up the road from this neighborhood hub for one of my deliveries. It was a newer home, likely the product of government assistance or a volunteer program. As I waited at the door, I could hear someone calling to me that she was coming. The loveliest Black woman answered the door with a big smile and expressions of gratitude. "Thank you for being so patient," she said, "when you get to be 95, you just don't move as fast." I tried ineffectively to hide the look of surprise on my face. "95, really?!" I exclaimed. She reminded me of my own Granny, impeccably dressed, looking much younger than her years and with that same compassionate twinkle in her eyes. In that moment, all I saw was the wisdom and experience housed in any woman of her age.
I walked away wondering how she felt about the goings-on down the street. Did she shake her head in the typical disapproval of older generations, or did it go deeper, her heart aching for the plight of young Black people in her community with limited opportunity? If a young white man stands on a street corner, society sees him down on his luck or addicted to drugs, having 'thrown it all away'; if a young Black man stands on a street corner, he's perceived as unwilling to apply himself or is the one supplying the drugs. The truth is, there is no privilege to be wasted if there was none to begin with.
I made my last stop, parking several houses down from the actual location due to cars lining the streets, many with tires missing or patched up windows. My own street is lined with cars. The man across from us owns three and he's the only one who lives in the house. I'm able to park my new car in the driveway, but our third vehicle, a paid-off Jeep kept just for fun, occupies the garage. I feel ridiculous even admitting to three cars for two people, but that is what my suburban upbringing, my college education and my well-paying job afford me. I don't sit in denial of that privilege, but it does make me squirm in my seat.
The instructions for the last stop were to knock on the door "without the blanket". I climbed the steep driveway and crossed the rocky yard littered with toys and soda cans. I contemplated which of the doors was "without the blanket" since one door had a mesh cloth hanging across it. When I noticed a child's blanket covering the window of the other door, I turned to knock through the cloth screen. I noticed a bug crawling across the wood, having penetrated the flimsy mesh covering. It hit me like a flash of lightning. All week long, I've been thinking that I should call the pest control company because of the roaches we've been seeing in the house. The fact that I have a pest control service on speed dial; that is privilege. A young Latina girl answered the door, and this is where the lines of privilege become blurred. Race, income, gender. It all contributes in its own way.
I've been aware of privilege, but never imagined something as small as an insect would keep me from taking it for granted. I spent this morning learning more about educational racism and how it was illegal for Blacks to be educated until multiple amendments and Civil Rights acts were passed. After that came segregation and redlining and, while I embody the possibly unpopular view that I won't bear shame for the "sins of the father" (or a whole string of forefathers, in this instance), I can absolutely do my part to create a better future. I don't know what this means for me personally just yet, but I consider it a privilege (whose less sinister definition is "special honor") that my volunteer service helps open my eyes.
"Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better." -Maya Angelou