I went through the questions in the online quiz. I scored 61% which meant that was the degree of privilege that I was enjoyed, because of my gender, race, background, education, wealth, and amount of prejudice I had experienced. As with most questionnaires, there was a set of assumptions behind each question, and I shrugged my shoulders, and moved on to the next item in my Facebook timeline.
Later I thought more about those questions. Some questions covered areas I had never thought of as being privileged – instead, I thought I was just normal. I’d had two married parents, was a female, had been educated, was heterosexual, and hadn’t had to pay for a university (college) education. These things were also normal for most of my peers.
It was also normal to have had low-paying waged jobs while I was a student, and not have a student loan – there weren’t any loans then. It was normal to be white, and not to have had a car while I was at school. (I biked each day, or bussed when it was wet, as did everyone else.)
Was what I considered to be ‘normal,’ actually a ‘privilege’, as the quiz seemed to suggest?
Normality or privilege?
A friend had made a comment in reply to the quiz, which resonated with me. She said she was privileged because she lived in a house with a waterproof roof, and running water. She had enough food for her family; they had access to good medical care, good books, an education, and were healthy and happy. She was privileged because she lived in a country that wasn’t at war, and which was at peace. She compared her present circumstances with those of her parents, growing up in the post-war Netherlands.
Is privilege what you have, that others don’t?
Ah, I thought, it’s all about context. My friend felt privileged in the areas that her parents had been deprived of, or had struggled with. I realised my understanding of privilege was similar – the things that I considered were normal were part of the post-war society I had grown up in, where I knew only one divorced person, where there was little overt racism because Maori people belonged to the same relatively isolated community that we did and weren’t outsiders, and where most prejudice was expressed by Protestants towards Roman Catholics, and vice versa. (My parents hadn’t bought into that prejudice though.)
An adult awareness of privilege
As an adult I considered my upbringing to have been a privileged one in ways not measured by the quiz. I was able to live out in the country, and enjoy the outdoors in ways children can’t do today. My siblings and I, together with our neighbours’ families, roamed the paddocks near our house, jumped and swam and played in streams and trees without any adult supervision. We only returned home when we could hear my mother on our back door step calling us for dinner.
I was privileged because our family went on picnics to beautiful lakes and streams, caught whitebait, and cooked mussels in a billy on a campfire on the beach. I was privileged because we were able to go on holiday each year, even if only 15kms away to an uncle’s basic bach. I was privileged because I was part of a large whanau with uncles and aunts and cousins to visit. I was privileged because I had grandparents and belonged to a small community where most people knew each other.
Children understand privilege if they are aware others don’t have what they do
While I was growing up I did know I was privileged because I was healthy (a girl in my class died of cancer when I was 12). For three years in a row I received a certificate at the end of year school assembly because I hadn’t missed a day of school that year. What I took for granted was that I could bike anywhere, play sport, clamber up and down trees, and my parents even found enough funds to allow me to have dancing lessons.
I now regard my upbringing as privileged because our family had only a radio and a landline (on a party line) and no cell phones, no TV, and a very occasional visit to a movie as a treat.
The privilege of a post-war generation
There were other ways in which I realised later that I had experienced privilege. My father had returned from WW2 when many other men didn’t. I was able to be financially independent of my parents once I left school – as I was the eldest they couldn’t afford to support me any longer, anyway. (Although finances were constrained during my childhood, I never thought that we were poor, because society was so egalitarian. It was only in my last year at school that I became aware of the fact that some of my classmates’ parents were much better off than our family was.)
I was also privileged to grow up in a society that was basically honest; a person’s word could be trusted, we didn’t lock our doors when we went out, and one of the biggest misdemeanours at school was being caught smoking behind the bike sheds.
Of course, our community wasn’t perfect, as human beings consistently exhibit failings and flaws. (It was only when I was an adult that my parents told me about some of the issues our neighbours had had to deal with: mental illness, tragedy, violence.) As I grew up, I began to realise that what I had considered normal, other people had been deprived of.
How I see privilege today
Today I’m privileged to live where I do, in a beautiful place, amongst good people, and in a peaceful land, with sufficient to live on. I’m privileged too to have modern communications that enable me to live here, and to have access to a health system that does keep me in reasonable shape. I’m increasingly grateful for the ways in which I don’t have to be anxious about having the basics of life.
Does that then make these things a ‘privilege’? I would rather think that most of what I considered to be normal is still normal, and is the right of every child growing up, rather than being a privilege. I would rather have the understanding that if these things are not the norm, then that child is deprived.
Some choices mean privilege for adults, deprivation for children
Many people want to change the concept of what’s normal to include a degree of deprivation, in the name of diversity. One example is where same sex couples in raising a child are deliberately depriving that child of the opportunity to live with two parents of the opposite sex. (Intriguingly though, the quiz seemed to suggest it was a privilege to have married parents of each sex.)
Another example is the situation where in order to maintain jobs and a particular lifestyle, parents are choosing to commute for hours each day, and call the time in the car with their children, ‘family time’ because there isn’t any other time available for interaction with their children.
It seems too that how society is structured today leads to deprivation for many under-privileged families, where insufficient income or ability to earn means that children are deprived of the basics of life, and of time with parents and families. Time for family life should not be a privilege – it should be the norm.
Obviously, society is in a state of flux; old norms are being challenged, sometimes from opposing perspectives. I am increasingly concerned that what is normal, and what is the right of every child, is being side-lined or lost sight of, in the name of diversity or a mistaken notion of privilege. For those of us who are Christians, how do we respond?
Liz Hay rejoices in living in a beautiful part of God’s creation in a high country mountain basin; and she also rejoices in hearing stories of God at work in people’s lives. One of her favourite activities is reading fascinating biographies that illustrate the wonderful ways God works uniquely with each person.