Voice of America correspondent Rachel Jones has a great piece (in LinkedIn, which against many odds is turning into kind of an interesting outlet) about “How Ben Bradlee’s Outrageous Use of White Privilege Changed My Life.” It’s about how as a young journalism student a piece she wrote attracted Ben Bradlee’s attention, and how he convinced her to come to the Washington Post:
[T]he moment I knew I would commit to journalism occurred in Ben Bradlee’s office during that summer of 1984. There I sat, hands folded in my lap to keep them from visibly trembling, watching his mouth move but not really comprehending much of what he was saying. On a shelf above his right shoulder sat a picture of John F. Kennedy. I was in the office of a legend who had been friends with a legend, and he was advising ME on my journalism career….
There is a magic that is potent beyond human understanding when someone in a position of power extends him or herself on your behalf, based on nothing more that a belief in your potential. It lights a fire that would take a hurricane to extinguish. Now, I’ve faced a few tropical depressions through the years, mind you, but so far, I have never stopped believing in my talent as a writer. And that moment when Ben Bradlee took the time to act as my personal career counselor sealed my fate.
I think a fair amount about the question of privilege, and I’ve come to see privilege not as a fixed social category that exerts a deterministic power over us, but as a tool. It’s not one that’s fairly distributed: some of us are born with it or inherit it, just as some of us are born beautiful or swift or super-smart. But I don’t think having it automatically makes you suspect or clueless (as in “check your privilege”), for a couple reasons.
When I was writing The Distraction Addiction, I spent a little time looking at the lives of religious leaders, saints, and noted mystics. I happened to notice something curious: most of them came from privileged backgrounds. The most exalted was the Buddha, who was so cosseted and protected that (according to legend at least) he didn’t even know about death until his was an adult. Moses, Prince of Egypt With a Secret Past, wasn’t that far behind. Numerous medieval Catholic saints come from minor nobility (Hildegard von Bingen and Ignatius Loyola) or the upper reaches of the merchant class (Francis of Assisi); Bodhidharma, the monk who brought Buddhism to China, was (according to one source) the son of a provincial king; the early Zen master Dōgen was the son of a nobleman. Yet these privileged backgrounds didn’t stop them from embracing austere, challenging, and exemplary lives.
Indeed, it seems to me that while the trajectory of, say, Augustine of Hippo (highly respectable merchant family, but on their way down the economic ladder) and Bradlee may seem very different, their privileged upbringings gave them something that they both used to advantage: a sensibility that institutions exist for them to use– and fortunately they put them to good use. But whether you’re an editor taking on a president, or a saint taking on the powerful and worldly, you’re a lot more likely to succeed if you have a sense that it’s perfectly natural for you to challenge authority because you’re it’s equal. This isn’t just noblesse oblige, a sense that your good fortune carries responsibility; it’s something more basic or instinctive.
This upside of privilege was brought home to me by, of all people, my daughter and her friends during their years at Peninsula. One day, my daughter got sick and had to go home mid-day. About an hour after I brought her home, the phone rang. Her friends were concerned, and went to office to telephone and check up on her. This was really striking to me because when I was in school, the office was the LAST place I wanted to be. I never would have thought that I could just go in and use the telephone; but for my daughter’s friends, it never occurred to them that they couldn’t use it, or anything else at the school. They always behaved as if the school was theirs, and they were right; it was. I only hope when they get older, they’ll assume that the world is theirs, too.