Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Drenched in privilege

I can't take credit for the title of this post. I heard it just this week for the first time.

Until two years ago, I didn't realize I was a person of privilege. To my mind, that meant country clubs and expensive cars and a glamorous lifestyle. I have never been that, nor would I want to. 

What I had instead was a childhood as the daughter of a military officer. A university education. Not one day without enough to eat or a place to sleep. Enough money to pay the bills even when I was the single mother of two boys and without work for a few months. A job with good benefits and a decent retirement income.

I never thought much about it. I knew there were problems of discrimination and poverty and multiple other human difficulties in the United States and the rest of the world. I sympathized with all those affected by such things. I donated money to the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders and Habitat for Humanity and for several years sent money each month to some Children's Fund to support a child in an impoverished part of the world. 

Two years ago I was having dinner with six other women in Chautauqua, New York. We were discussing privilege, and I finally got it. I said, "I am just now realizing I am privileged." There was silence around the table and then one woman, Denny, said, "I commend you for your courage in acknowledging that around this table, to women you have just met."

A month later I made my first trip to Greece, to volunteer for six days in a refugee camp (I had planned this trip before I went to Chautauqua). I bought my ticket with frequent flyer miles. I was the oldest volunteer and lacked the stamina of the younger ones. I spent several hours each day in the air conditioned container that was the staff office. Fortunately, the director found me useful working with her. The other volunteers worked in the sweltering warehouse, distributing food and clothing to refugees.

Two months later I went back, this time for two weeks. And last year, I returned two more times, for a month each time. On my last two visits, I did two-week stints as vacation relief for the camp director. I took my husband with me, and we paid for our tickets from a travel savings account.

On these journeys to the camp, there was not one day when I didn't have enough to eat or a place to sleep. I shared a bathroom with eight other people, but had a hot shower each day. And wonderful food in the nearby village. And, sometimes, gelato.

I know now that we are all the same, no matter where we live or what kind of roof - or none - is over our heads when we sleep. Or where we were born, or how we worship - or not. I knew it not because I had read about it or watched it on the media, but because I had sat with refugee residents of the camp, and volunteers from around the world, and local Greek citizens. We are all the same. Really.

I belong to a progressive spiritual community. On Memorial Day this week some of our members participated in The Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival". This movement was initiated by Dr. William Barber- whom I had heard speak at Chautauqua -  using Martin Luther King's work as a model. The Poor People's Campaign is led by people of color, with support by others. So Monday, we were led by two people of color in Olympia, but the 16 people who sat in the intersections were white and mostly middle aged or older. The theme for this week is "The War Economy", and talks were given on the steps of the capitol about the cost of US defense - in money and in lives - and on gun violence. I was a "peace keeper" and wore a yellow vest. My job was to protect the protesters if agitators were present.

From the beginning of the event, the police watched us - some on bicycles, others in vehicles with flashing lights. We marched, chanting and singing. We took over four consecutive intersections in Olympia while the police positioned themselves strategically to manage and divert traffic. The leaders wanted some of us to be arrested for civil disobedience, but that did not happen in the first three intersections. We finally surrounded a police car in the intersection just before freeway onramps to north I-5 (Seattle) and south I-5 (Portland). At one time there were 19 police vehicles with lights flashing.

And the protesters sat for over two hours before they were finally arrested. Remember, there were no people of color on the ground. Just older white people.

Here's what the Reverend Cecilia Kingman said last night:

I can’t sleep tonight. I can’t stop thinking about Sandra Bland. I can’t stop thinking about white privilege.
Today I led an action of civil disobedience in which we blocked a freeway on ramp, and then surrounded a police vehicle (which we then realized was the vehicle belonging to the Captain of the Washington State Patrol). In spite of our disruptive actions, police took hours to arrest us, gave us multiple warnings, and were polite and warm. They even asked if we needed to use the bathroom, and asked if we were comfortable.
They asked me how I wanted the arrests to go. Seriously! They did everything but offer us a cup of coffee.
Sandra Bland, SAY HER NAME, was pulled over for failure to use her turn signal, and died three days later in her jail cell. Her turn signal!
I was utterly drenched in my white privilege today. I could hardly get arrested, the cops were so reluctant. Hey y’all, if a bunch of young people of color had done what we did today, they would have been dragged by their hair. Or worse.
I’m sick to my stomach tonight.
I can’t wait for my court date.
Even better, I can’t wait to get back in the streets, ready to do whatever our leaders of color ask of me.
And on the same day, in Oinofyta, Greece, refugees blocked the road in front of the camp, which reopened in March with inadequate living conditions. Here's what Lisa Campbell, Do Your Part's Executive Director and now my friend, had to say:
Tensions at the Oinofyta camp have finally come to a head. The residents are blocking the road, demanding to speak with journalists and refusing to move until they have told their story.
Please share this to raise awareness.
UPDATE: representatives from the ministry of migration came. They told the residents they would not speak with them until they open the road. So the road is now open and a small group of residents is speaking with the representatives. The residents have said that if they are not satisfied with the negotiations they will close the national road next.
UPDATE 2: Conversations were had with the ministry officials to air the residents complaints and requests. The main request is for the most vulnerable to be removed to housing. Promises were made. Things have calmed down, for now. We will see. I hope this is the beginning of a major improvement in the situation in the camp.

When we left Olympia on Monday at 9:30 pm - after the 16 protesters had been arrested and then released immediately, my feet and legs were very tired and sore. When I got home I took a hot shower and slept in my own bed. The next morning I mediated a session in small claims court, then came home and took a warm bath and a nap.
Drenched in privilege. That would be me.


Janette said...

I am glad your day as good. Bringing voice to those who have little or nothing is so important. Have you considered working in the jails while you are up north? What are the tribal areas like around Oregon? There is so much to be done.
On Memorial Day a number of the police and workers (mostly older- of every color) unloaded summer clothing for the kids. All was quiet on the streets. A few of us moved along and spent time sorting food at the food bank from the Post Office collection. It was a good day. It was a privilege to be a part of the abundance of our country and try to be a part of the solvers.

Saku said...

My daughter and I were just talking about this last night. We don't recognize the depth of our privilege unless we see it staring us in the face. Your story is very powerful! With any luck it will get some media coverage though I suspect Roseanne is top of mind at the moment. How sad is that?


Linda Reeder said...

I grew up relatively poor, but I still had what I needed, if not always what I wanted. It took me a long time to understand white privilege, but I am getting it. I am "woke". I'm not sure that I am ready for civil disobedience though.

Olga said...

A very powerful message. I am a white, middle-class woman of a certain age. The only thing that would make me more privileged would be being a male. I always kind of thought I was treated with common courtesy but as I became more aware of how others (the others who do not look like me) fail to receive common courtesy, I started to understand the concept of privilege with its negative connotations. It was much later in life that I heard it called out by name. Until the worth and dignity of all living beings is recognized, we are all diminished.

dkzody said...

Olga said it perfectly, the only thing making me more privileged would have been born male. I live a very privileged life because of where and when I was born. I am beyond thankful for all that privilege and I know I must work to help others achieve the same.

Meryl Baer said...

Powerful blog post. We are more likely to complain about what we don't have than be grateful for what we have.

Deb said...

“Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.” ― Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Whatever our station in life, whether it be one of privilege or poverty, if only we can generate compassion and empathy for others, no matter *their* station in life, we all can harness the energy of love and rediscover fire. If we have enough to eat, adequate shelter and medical care, we are among the world's privileged. The challenge is recognizing and acting on it. I was touched and cheered by your post Linda. My disability prevents me from travelling to Greece or sitting in protests, but it does not stop me from trying to feel (and show) compassion and empathy for even the most 'unlovable' among us.

Thank you for doing the work you're doing, the world needs more people like you.

DJan said...

I am impressed by your ability to communicate your feelings and adventures with the police so well. I read the entire post with much interest and then all the comments. We are indeed drenched in privilege which makes it very hard to be "woke," as Linda Reeder said. But we are slowly beginning to realize that if we don't care for the situation of others who are not like us, we all suffer. Thank you for taking the time and energy to write this important post.

percy kittens said...

A few posts ago you mentioned on your bucket list that you wanted to be arrested for civil disobedience. I thought, darken your skin and go about your day, and when the fifth person in an hour follows you around in a store or assumes you dont have money to pay for things or pulls you over for no reason, if you assert your rights, you'll get your wish.
I didnt say that. I thought better of it.
But you figured it out.
Thats one of the many things I love about you. Always looking deeper.
I love you white girl.

Joared said...

White privilege has been so taken for granted for so many generations most of us have just taken it as a given. We’re long past the time for reckoning which is coming even if some don't want it and are doing everything they can to impede its progress. You certainly are taking a direct way to bring about this long overdue change. Am just now catching up here as have been taking a blogging break.

Kathy @ SMART Living said...

Hi Linda! I am dreadfully late to commenting on this post but I couldn't let it go by without saying something. I so agree that you and I as white middle (upper?) class women in our country have so many privileges that we take for granted. I think one of the best things you do (and I try to do regularly) is to travel to other countries where we see how other people around the world live. It is always eyeopening. I happen to believe that everyone should have to travel (sort of draft for the peace-corp) so that when we are young we travel around and see how others live. I too have become more "active" than I ever was when I was younger. There are so many causes out there that can benefit from both our presence, our time, and our support. Good for you for doing something so valuable in Greece. You are an inspiration to me! ~Kathy