Like many people like me, I got edgy, even a bit defensive, when people started talking about “privilege” or “white privilege.” The term made me uncomfortable. I hardly had a life I would consider privileged, my family had no money and we struggled just like so many other people. I have worked for every penny I ever earned and have had many battles to fight.
Yet as I think about it the term, and what it means, and study examples of how it works, I see that I am a person of privilege, and that this does shape the way I look at the world, and sometimes prevents me from empathizing with others.
To me, empathy is the highest aspiration of human beings. Anything that helps me to stand in the shoes of others makes me a better, not aggrieved, person.
What is privilege, anyway?
I do hate labels like that, they are often hateful and mind-killing, like “left” or “right,” part of the denigration of the American Mind. But there are sometimes reason for them, and they sometimes help me to understand the world around me in a better way.
It did not, for example, occur to me to make it clear to older people, or people on fixed incomes, or poorer people, or refugee people or young people, that their contributions to my work and the Army Of Good work are precious, wanted and meaningful.
A $5 bill does not go as far as a $1,000 check for sure, but a bunch of $5 bills add up quickly and can buy laptops, microscopes, groceries, clothes or sneakers for kids wearing sandals in the winter.
Beyond that, it means the world to me to open an envelope in my post office box and see those crisp or crinkled $5 bills from all over the country, sent in small envelopes with heartfelt and hand written messages thanking me for letting them contribute, even though they are not rich.
Timmy send me $5 from Nashville Tennesse yesterday, “it’s my allowance,” he said, “please give it to Issachar or Asher, tell them I know what it’s like…” I asked Timmy how old he was, he said he was 10.
My post office box was full of $5 bills today, they were from Kentucky, South Dakota, Washington state, Maine, Florida and Texas. Every one had a $5 bill or $10 bill or $10 Amazon Gift Card with a note saying, as Jane from Michigan did, “thank you for writing small contributions are welcome.
“I’ve often wanted to send you a small contribution – my husband died a decade ago, and I live on his Social Security, which isn’t much. I didn’t think you would want something that small, I thought it might anger you. I don’t always have $5, but when I do, I will send it to you – you decide what to do with it. The work you are doing is so important. And thanks so much for letting me feel I can contribute too.”
So when I think of this, I want to sit down and cry. Jane with no money and plenty of challenges, takes $5 of her scare reserve and thanks me for accepting it.
When I think about the idea of privilege, I realize how blessed I am and have been, how I have never had to think about a $5 bill in that way. I am reminded that it’s a very different country for so many of my fellow citizens.
I also see in my work with the Mansion residents and refugees that there are so many people in the world who can only dream of a life like mine, even though I am neither rich or powerful. I have had my share of problems, but that’s besides the point.
I need to say this to the $5 people. You are important, your money is important, your support is important. Please do not ever think $5 doesn’t matter. It does.
I think of people sitting in their kitchens in Detroit and Appalachia and the Badlands taking out a $5 bill, putting it into an envelope, addressing it to me, and getting it to the post office with a first class stamp. That’s a lot harder than sending a huffy e-mail message.
Privilege isn’t just about money or a trouble-free life. There’s trouble and there’s trouble. In the course of my refugee work these past years, I encountered the most naked and hurtful kind of anti-Semitism for the first time in my life.
I have never felt persecuted as someone who was born Jewish, I rarely think of anti-Semitism and have never felt it personally, even when people say the dumbest things about Jews. But I was made to feel it recently, and it hurt me in the most painful way.
It also opened my eyes even further to the idea of what privilege really means. What it can mean to be Jewish or African-American or gay or female. Insults and slights and bigotry and harassment can really hurt and change the nature of one’s world.
I always knew that intellectually but it felt like a kick in the stomach when it happened to me.
So thanks, Jane and C. Dobbs and Susan and Jeanine and Tammy for your $5 bills. I put them in an envelope and I will use them to buy something for the refugee kids in Sue Silverstein’s class. Thanks for the $5 money orders and automatic bank checks that I get too. I’m proud to get them.
The $5 and $10 people will always be welcome here, and your contributions really matter. They add up and help people, they have purchased socks and toothpaste and shirts and pencils and pens and notebooks, even a laptop computer or two. And they sure lift my heart right up to the sky.
(By the way, your contributions are welcome in any amount for this work, for the elderly and the refugees. You can send it to me via Paypal, firstname.lastname@example.org or by check, Jon Katz, Mansion/Refugee Fund, P.O. Box 205, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816.