Finding the Hidden Power in Privilege

MAYBE I’M THE LAST PERSON WHO SHOULD BE TALKING ABOUT PRIVILEGE.

For years — almost my entire life — I never knew what privilege was. Because everyone I knew was just like me.

I grew up in nice houses and neighborhoods. I never worried about money or getting whatever new toy was on the store shelf. I didn’t have to work during high school or pay for college. I didn’t even have to make my own bed until I left home, didn’t have to slice my own sandwiches into quarters with the crusts cut off. I know, spoiled rotten with OCD, hell of a combo.

I live in Orange County, Calif., which is basically Ground Zero for privileged white people. We’re so white, major TV networks had no problem making shows about us in the ‘90s. For us Arrested Development was a documentary; The OC was our version of Downton Abbey.

Orange County isn’t a place, it’s a petri dish of privilege stewed in salt water and safe harbors. Our privilege is invisible yet pervasive, like the air we effortlessly breathe without fear of a knee against our necks. 

And then I thought about it. Like really thought about it, like late-at-night can’t sleep thinking and dissecting my so-called perfect life, and came to an epiphanous conclusion: My privilege doesn’t come from what I have, but from what I don’t.

It’s the things I’ve never had to deal with that gut me. Not only can I walk around my block at night and not worry about my neighbors calling the cops, but that possibility isn’t even buried somewhere deep inside my DNA. It doesn’t exist, never existed for me and never will. Just as a video game character can only live within the confines of its programming, I simply don’t have the data necessary to understand.

“White” is our national default; it’s our factory setting, in many ways like Christianity is our default religion. Anything else, anything outside those comfortable confines, is by definition an “other.” And for too many people, “other” leads to discomfort, fear, ignorance and violence.

I’ve had some experience as the “other” – not racial discrimination, but religious prejudice and intolerance. From “Kike” name-calling in elementary school to Hitler salutes and assumptions about my role in the global media and banking cabal, I’ve seen and heard it all. Just a few years ago I was in a pub in Chicago when the man next to me casually talked about “you people” in reference to lawyers. I wanted to say “Um, dude, we’re doctors too,” but that just would have encouraged him.

So while I’ve never feared for my life, I’ve grown accustom to the police protecting me at High Holiday services and hiding my religion from strangers. I understand the crawling feeling on your skin when seeing a swastika. I can empathize with the victims and survivors of the Pittsburgh synagogue attack and countless other acts of hate.

The difference with us is we tend to stay quiet. We prefer not to talk about these issues or make a fuss. We assimilated Jews want to feel normal and be accepted, and that means sticking to our original programming. Fit in, don’t fight back.

Which brings me back to privilege.

Some people can’t choose to just “feel normal” or be accepted. And people like me can’t stay quiet anymore either.

Because when it comes to privilege and social justice, quiet is complicit. Quiet is dangerous. Quiet is the finger on the trigger firing seven times into a man’s back; it’s the cries of a mother burying her child.

I get it now – because despite doing everything to fit in, despite getting jobs and raising families, people still tell us that we control the media and run the banks and killed Jesus. We’re told we’re overreacting about a few swastikas spray painted on our walls (“probably just some kids.”) And enough with the Holocaust already! Sure it sounded awful and that movie was sad but can’t you just move on?

You know what, I changed my mind. I’m exactly who should be talking about privilege. Absence of experience is no longer an excuse. And having a voice and the power to do good means nothing if you aren’t willing to use it.

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