Like many other sane individuals, I paid a company $79 for the privilege of spitting in a tube to await an email with secrets about my heritage. Well, the results are in, and I was surprised to learn that I am, in fact, white.
Yet another sound financial decision on my part.
Well, it didn’t say that I was white, but the analysis did conclude that I am 99.4% European (and over 95% Northwestern European). Zero surprise there. My freckles and love for potatoes betrayed me years ago. But the mysterious remaining 0.6%, which isn’t much from a statistical perspective, was interesting in that 0.5% was identified as Native American and the remaining 0.1% West African. That surely hasn’t shown up in the mirror before.
The explanation shared that I most likely have a great (unknown number of great) grandparent born in the 18th century that was 100% Native American and another possibly even farther removed that was 100% West African. This explanation combined with a little reflection led me to suspect that such relationships may not have been consensual. Who knows, maybe theirs was a beautiful story of forbidden love, but the odds argue for something more sinister. This was not a happy thought.
I understand the basic logic behind the refusal to accept responsibility for the sordid history of one’s family, ethnicity, nation, gender, religion, or any other identity, but I simply cannot accept an arrangement where one can take pride in the past accomplishments of one’s particular heritage without owning the bad parts, too. It seems to me to be a package deal.
I didn’t have to pay good money to spit in a tube to be reminded that I think such a thing. But I did. And I do.
Some days it feels like my wife and I should move to Nairobi to be with the children we met there who live on the hard streets. On others I consider Delhi where I learned that young girls are vulnerable to sex traffickers. On still others I remember the poor Brazilians we saw living in the favelas of Rio. But today, I live in California.
And then some days I drive down L.A.’s “skid row” and wonder how I can live in Malibu instead of with those in absolute squalor just a few miles away. And then I open my eyes to Malibu and see homeless and un/under-employed friends looking for work at the Malibu Community Labor Exchange.
The needs are simply everywhere.
How does one live in this old world? I have worked for several causes, from at-risk children to poverty housing to disaster relief to homelessness to day laborers…
And then I see those heart-wrenching images of Syrian children on television. And then churches in Egypt are bombed while celebrating Palm Sunday.
The needs are everywhere, and they are overwhelming.
My personal belief system leads to public policy opinions that seems to place me at odds with all presidents, not to mention most of my friends, but it also leads me to devote (some but far) less energy to public policy discussions and more to being with the sufferers. Knowing names. Sharing hugs. Sharing tears.
But there are so many.
So here is my plan:
I will not let such overwhelming need harden my heart so that I give up on caring. I refuse the temptation to apathy.
I will not allow the impossibility of being everywhere at once immobilize me so that I give up on trying. I refuse the temptation to quit.
And I will encourage others to make similar commitments. I refuse the temptation to think that it is all up to me.
May the privileged few share with the underprivileged masses. Everywhere. Together. Today.
Syrian Refugee Children (via the International Rescue Committee)
Posted in Original Essays
Tagged action, california, delhi, favelas, injustice, labor exchange, los angeles, love, malibu, nairobi, privilege, rio, share, skid row, syria
“Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Waze calculates thirty-four miles from Pepperdine University to East Los Angeles College; the Pacific Coast Highway to East Cesar E. Chavez Avenue; the celebrity-populated western side of Los Angeles to Cheech Marin’s East L.A.; Malibu to Monterey Park. It sure seems longer, even in rush hour traffic. They are two different worlds.
I serve on the advisory council for the East Los Angeles College (“ELAC”) Pathway to Law School Transfer Program, a coalition of educators and practitioners brought together to destroy obstacles that stand in the way of a young person advancing from high school to community college, from community college to a four-year college, and from a four-year college to law school. It is an inspiring group, and I am honored to be a part.
It is also personally disconcerting. I’m not exactly sure how I, a first-generation college student from rural Arkansas, the son of a butcher who dropped out of high school to provide for his family during the Great Depression, am suddenly the picture of white privilege in a room full of impressive human beings, but as a lawyer who drove over from his condo in Malibu, even my expertise in denial simply tossed in the towel and admitted the truth. I may be the most reluctant privileged person around.
It was dark when the meeting ended, and on the stroll across the ELAC campus to drive back to idyllic Malibu, I noticed several classes in session. Maybe I was wanting it to be so, but it sure looked like all of the students in those classes were engaged in the instruction and not bored on Facebook. I’m just sure of it. I then wandered by the math tutoring center, and it was undeniably a hub of academic activity late on a weekday evening. All this made me feel particularly hopeful in this perplexing world of ours.
If I must come to terms with privilege, and I just might have to, I must use it to help those inspiring students hungry for knowledge in those hushed classrooms gleaming in the darkness.
Posted in Original Essays
Tagged cheech marin, dreams, east los angeles, elac, hope, justice, law, law school, malibu, martin luther king jr., pathways, pepperdine, privilege, waze
I participated in a “privilege beads” exercise at a diversity conference a year ago that involved reading statements and taking applicable beads to create a privilege bracelet. As a white, straight, Christian, highly-educated, American male who lives in Malibu, I made a privilege hula-hoop. It was embarrassing. It was particularly embarrassing because one of my primary self-identifiers has always been growing up poor (read: underprivileged). I am all about sticking it to the Man, ironically, and standing up for the little guy, i.e., my people. Imagine my surprise.
But discovering diversity has been, for me, a humiliating pathway to joy. The world is a big and beautiful place, and leaving the startling homogeneity of my hometown, though filled with wonderful people, has been an indescribable blessing. I have learned so much, mainly that I know so little, and what I don’t know is fascinating without fail. More importantly, I now have relationships with people who represent ethnicity, identities, faiths, interests, and nationalities that I never even heard of as a child. That is my real privilege. I am better for knowing these good souls, sure, but more importantly, the world is better for knowing them, too.
I returned to the same conference this year hoping for no privilege beads but anticipating new and deeper relationships and was not disappointed on any count. One of the many things I learned at this year’s conference is that the majority of the United States will be non-white by 2044 and that 2011 already marked the first year that more non-white babies were born in the United States than white babies. Significant change is occurring as to several of my privileges, some far more quickly than others. My Facebook feed reminds me that many find such changes to be frightening. Since diversity has been a great blessing in my life, I see it with different eyes. To co-opt the famous FDR quote, the only frightening thing I see is the fear itself.