The Responsibility of Privilege

 
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In my early 20s, I spent a few months in India. I remember meeting a man outside his home—a 4ft-high wood and plastic shack. In my limited Hindi, I learnt that his wife had just given birth to their child right there in that hut with no medical care whatsoever. In that moment I realised that the world was not a fair place. Just by being born in Australia, I was guaranteed free health care, whereas this man and his wife lived with constant vulnerability. He had not deserved his lot in life, just as I had not earned mine. It’s just how the world is.

Growing up, I thought I was “normal”. I didn’t feel particularly better or worse off than others around me. However, as I’ve journeyed further along the road of my 54 years of life, the more I’ve realised just how privileged I am, and how this privilege can affect my daily life. That realisation should, I suggest, give rise to a sense of responsibility to use our privilege to assist others.

Inherited Privilege

Much of my privilege is inherited in the sense that it is not due to any effort of mine whatsoever. The nature of my inherited privilege first dawned on me during a high school trip when I lived temporarily with another family. That family was a broken one. I realised my stable home with loving parents was not everyone’s experience. Nothing I’d done merited such an upbringing, and nothing my host family members had done deserved their tougher life—it is just how it was.

Related to having a stable family is the privilege of opportunity—the chance to try new things and in so doing, acquire new skills. Learning to swim and to play a musical instrument were opportunities that I thought every child had. Only later in India did I find that most children in the world actually can’t swim or read music, let alone travel, skateboard or surf.

As a 19-year-old, I spent a year in Denmark as an exchange student. That privilege allowed me to see that other cultures, in some ways, are better than our own. Denmark also showed me that having English as my mother tongue was an undeserved privilege. I hadn’t realised how illogical English grammar and spelling was until I watched others trying to learn it. Why, they would question me, was the plural of “house” “houses”, while the plural of “mouse” was “mice”. I had no idea, I just knew it was!

After Denmark, I returned to Australia to study at university. Here I was confronted with even more privilege—a free, high-quality, tertiary education! I’d already met a number of Americans who were about to incur huge debts at college thanks to their sizeable student loans—sums which would need to be repaid over decades. Even with HECS in Australia, I could continue my studies and not need to repay anything until my salary reached (in global terms) a very healthy level.

During my later university years, I also heard stories from refugees in Australia who had fled war and persecution, which made me realise how fortunate I am to enjoy peace and freedom. Again, the privilege I experienced had nothing to do with what I’d done right, or anything my refugee friends had done wrong—it just was the way it was.

Later, my wife Cathy and I moved to India. Our years there have shown us even more clearly just how privileged we are on a global scale. One obvious aspect is wages. Working in Australia, we were able to save thousands of dollars for our travels. In India, we met people who would work all day for $2—barely enough to put food on the table, let alone save up for travel! Again, my being able to work for $20-$30 an hour was not due to my ability, it was simply because I lived in Australia. Even a low income or minimum wage in Australia dwarfs the pay that many in other countries receive

Another significant aspect of my privilege in India (that Cathy couldn’t experience) was that of being male. India is a very patriarchal society in which most women have many major life decisions—education, marriage, children—made for them by males. In Australia, the difference isn’t as stark, but as a male, I’m sure I’m still blind to the ways this “male privilege” may influence my life.

There are many other inherited privileges I’ve experienced in my life that I haven’t described here: white people like myself have privilege due to our skin color which is often referred to as white privilege; a lack of significant emotional or physical disabilities, as well as a lack of mental health problems or learning disabilities; having a network of wise mentors; class privilege born out my social class—something that is even more noticeable in a country with a strong caste system like India; and being part of the ethnicity or culture which is the majority where I live.

imageGenerated Privilege

Other aspects of my privilege have derived in part from my working hard in life. In some ways we could say therefore, that those areas of privilege I do deserve. However, I hasten to add that these aspects were only possible because of the many inherited privileges that were completely undeserved. I therefore call these generated privileges, as they are generated from my inherited privilege.

The privilege of a university degree, for example, required considerable effort, but that was made all the easier by my stable family, adequate nutrition and functioning education system.

In recent years, I’ve also co-authored a book. Together with our work in India, the book has led to the privilege of some media attention and notoriety. Writing the book took two years of hard work, but it was only possible because of the privilege of my education, the opportunities gifted to me in my life, and my network of caring and courageous mentors.

I am therefore somewhat critical of those who claim that if people would just work hard, they should be able to get ahead. My experience is that plenty of people work incredibly hard, but their lack of privilege means they will never get ahead. Many who promote this self-help attitude to life are often blind to the privilege on which their success is built. Jesus urges us to “take the log out of your own eye” (Matthew 7:5) before judging others. I would suggest that for some of us, this requires seeing our own privilege more clearly before judging others as lazy.

From Privilege to Responsibility

Australia has had a proud history of helping the underdog. In recent decades however, it seems to me that as an Australian I’ve observed that we have become more selfish. We’re now increasingly told by friends, family and the media “you deserve it! Enjoy yourself!” To a great extent we’ve become “entitled”.

However, for me, the realisation of my privilege challenges that entitlement. Now I know I don’t actually deserve most of what I have, and many others in the world who have worked just as hard (or harder than me) have far less to show for it. Common fairness suggests, therefore, that we use our unearned privilege to assist those who are “underprivileged”.

People of faith have even more reason to use our privilege to help others. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked,” said Jesus (Luke 12:48).

Taking the concrete steps to use our privilege to assist others who are less privileged is, of course, where the rubber really hits our well-paved and privileged road! All the best on the journey.

Mark Delaney is a lawyer by training. He and his family lived and worked with the poor in India for more than 20 years. Since returning to Australia in 2019, he has worked part-time for the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change.