Last year, I read my first book on power and privilege. While reading it I felt like I went through the five stages of grief, but backwards:
1. Acceptance: "YES. This makes so much sense. I feel less isolated, less crazy."
2. Depression: "Does this mean I don't have a lot of power to change my situation? How powerful are the forces of power and privilege? What if they're too powerful?"
3. Bargaining: "Maybe if I work really hard I can overcome this and it won't matter."
4. Anger: "I thought we lived in a meritocracy. This is so unfair! And I feel so guilty for all the privileges I DO have. It's so unfair to other people! This is not right."
Then comes denial, but to be honest, the idea of power and privilege isn't something I've ever been able to deny. I've just seen it too much to even trick myself for a moment that it isn't true. I tried that in high school, before I knew what power and privilege was, and was given a reality check when I became a tutor in college and realized wealthy kids had thousands of dollars invested in their SAT tutoring and college application processes; while money can't buy happiness, I saw, for the first time, that it can buy opportunity.
But this never made me angry, necessarily, at least not at the wealthy parents and kids themselves. I get it. At least these parents care enough to want to invest their resources in their kids. I don't see anything wrong with that.
But what about all the people who can't do that even though they want to? How can they compete with that?
I don't have the answers, but I do have something to share: the final realization that came to me in my grief over power and privilege.
It happened at a Boys and Girls Club.
This past summer I started volunteering to see if I could offer some mentorship and homework help to the middle and high schoolers, but I soon realized there was no way I could only stick to working with one age group. The elementary-school kids stole my heart too. It was love at first Frozen-sing-along (some of the kids called me Elsa, and I loved it).
On one afternoon, a second grader came to me crying after being on the receiving end of a cruel comment from another student. I consoled her with a compliment opposite the cruel remark, and she brightened instantly. In a flash, these four words planted themselves behind my eyes.
Love is the thing.
I know it's simple. But I don't think it's fluffy. I think it matters.
Love may not raise test scores. But I think it creates the kind of safety net that helps people develop the kind of resilience and skills and motivation they need to fight through whatever lack of privilege they may have been born into.
The greatest privilege I have is two loving parents who believed and still believe in me. The more I read about crime, prison, poverty - the more it seems that not having some form of love or positive role model is what drives people to the outskirts of society. When I hear Angel Sanchez (now a very successful pre-law student) talk about why he joined a gang -- not to be violent, but for respect, friendship -- it reminds me how powerful being born into the privilege of love is. It is a privilege. Maybe the greatest of all.
And while you can't always control your place on its receiving end, the good news is that you can bestow this privilege for free, to anyone you meet.
Recently a friend shared on her Facebook wall a response Toni Morrison gave to a question about the greatest thing a parent could give their child: "Does your face light up when they walk in the room?"
I teared up when I read that because I thought about how accurately it described my parents. What did I do to deserve that privilege? The honest answer? Nothing.
And my heart breaks for those who've lost their parents, or for those who never quite had someone light up when they walk into a room. It's not fair.
So all I can think to do, when it comes to being on the receiving end of any form of unearned privilege for that matter, is to share it.
Light up when your students, your kids, your friends, your family, walk into a room. Think about how a baby reacts when you look him or her in the eye and smile - the gift of attention.
When in doubt, love is the thing.
I think it can get people through a lot more than we realize, and maybe, just maybe, help combat some of the unfair and unearned disadvantages many people have to overcome.
Thank you to all of you who love, even when no one notices, even when no one says thank you. You know who you are.
And thanks mom and dad.