How I Explain Privilege to My Kids
If you’re reading this blog, you have the internet. If you have the internet, there is a very good chance that you have easy access to clean, safe water.
So, what did you do to earn that clean, safe water?
Probably nothing. You were just born into a place that had clean, safe water. Maybe your grandparents voted for someone who made a decision to make the water in your area clean and safe, but most likely not. Or, if they did, they didn’t actively think about the cleanliness of the water as an issue. Probably. With some notable exceptions (Flint, MI and the north American pipelines come to mind), the issue of making clean, safe water accessible was decided decades or generations ago, and is something we can more or less take for granted in the developed world.
Around the world, about 750 MILLION people (twice the number of people living in the United States) do not have access to clean water.
What does clean water do for me? I’ll admit, I don’t think about it as often as I should, considering I live in Phoenix, Arizona. But clean water means I can cook literally whatever I want, as many times as I want, without thinking about it. Want pasta for dinner? No problem. Need to make regular pasta and gluten-free pasta? No problem, just boil two separate pots of water at the same time.
I can then clean those dishes. Sanitize the kitchen, wash my hands.
I have never lived in a home with fewer than two functioning toilets and three functioning sinks. I can mop my floors, wash laundry, and teach my kids how to wash their hands while they sing the ABCs. We take showers daily, brush our teeth, wash our dogs, prevent infections and disease from taking hold in our home.
That’s the functional aspect of it, but there’s also an aesthetic component. We can wash our hair and dye our hair and make it look just how we want. We can water our plants and grow green, useless grass. (I don’t — green front yards are all but illegal in Phoenix, but that’s not true for most people with access to clean water)
Everywhere I go, I carry a reusable water bottle that contains filtered, delicious, ice-cold water. I can refill it at fast food places, city drinking fountains in the park and the library, or at the soda stations at gas stations.
My high schooler is encouraged by his coach to drink a gallon of water per day. We have two ice makers in the house. Our dogs have clean water. We wash our cars regularly.
I’ve been thirsty before. I’ve even been dehydrated, so dangerously dehydrated that I found myself in the emergency room on the verge of renal failure.
That doesn’t eliminate the privilege I have of having constant access to clean, safe water. It just means that I lost access, or forgot, or had an unfortunate circumstance (like a flu while pregnant) that made my access to that water temporarily irrelevant.
But I still had access to clean water. Clean water that I did absolutely nothing to deserve, but which has undoubtedly saved my life again and again and again, despite my circumstance of having been without it for infinitesimally short periods of time.
750 million people do not have access to clean water. They did nothing to deserve that misfortune. But it affects everything about their lives. They have less opportunity to wash themselves and their clothing and their homes. If they can physically get to a water source, far away, it lessens their opportunity for gainful employment or education, since they’re spending their whole day getting water to save their own lives.
They are not bad or evil for the misfortune of not having clean water.
I am not bad or evil for the fortune of having clean water.
They are not more virtuous for surviving in a place without clean water.
I am not more virtuous for living in a place that makes it easy for me to clean my home, my body, my family, my neighborhood.
If we switched places — if they suddenly had clean water and I did not — that wouldn’t really solve the world’s problem of water inequity: there would still be people without access to clean water, people who did nothing to deserve that oppression and difficulty in their life.
It wouldn’t make any sense for me to poison my own drinking water, just to make things even. Now we’re both in danger of getting severely ill.
But it does make sense for me to help them get clean water. Donating cash money to the organizations that help bring clean water to disadvantaged places. Listening to the plight of the people who are struggling with a lack of water. Believing them when they describe how difficult it is to live without access to clean water. Voting for people who want to fix this problem and who have the education and the dedication to get it fixed.
I can make this situation more equitable. First, by listening. Second, by believing. Third, by donating. Fourth, by voting, spreading the word, supporting global initiatives that help people get access to clean water.
This is privilege.
I have the privilege of living in a place with clean water. I did nothing to deserve it. I also have the privilege of being white in a white-majority society, of being Christian in a Christian-majority society, of being straight, mostly able-bodied, in full control of my mental faculties, and being more or less conventionally attractive (I’m not saying I’m pretty, I’m just saying I don’t have any major disfigurements that would preclude me from presenting a good face during, say, a job interview). All of these are privileges, things that make my life easier just … because. Aside from Christianity, I did nothing to earn or choose any of these things.
Just like no one did anything to earn the difficult position of being Black in America, or being physically disabled, or being LGBT+, or having significant mental and cognitive impairments.
Removing my privilege and bestowing it upon someone else won’t solve the problem; there would still be inequity in the world. And this is the exact reason why social organizations like Black Lives Matter are not seeking retribution or a swapping of roles; I don’t know any Black people who want to oppress white people. I don’t know any Black people who want cops to shoot white people. They just want equality. Equity. Fairness.
And I can help with that. We all can.
First, by listening. Second, by believing the people who tell me their stories. Third, by donating, protesting, spreading the word. Fourth, by voting and supporting the organizations that actively work to suppress oppression and inequity.
I can spend my time and my money helping to lift others up, to make sure others have the same access and opportunity I do. It is incumbent upon the privileged to do the work of making the world more equitable, not upon the marginalized to demand that equity.