From My Perspective: Friendship, Privilege and Progress

By Michelle Matthews, Senior Vice President, Purpose Built Communities

Catching up with a long-time friend usually means reminiscing and chatting about family and mutual acquaintances. And sometimes, it means building from a shared history and trust to challenge each other.

I recently talked to a friend who moved to a different state years ago. After exchanging updates about our personal lives, I began to share highlights from work—and that’s when our conversation took an unexpected turn.

My friend—a white woman—had a visceral reaction when I brought up Purpose Built’s work in the context of privilege. She said the word “privileged” describes people who are rich and often “stuck up.” She had difficulty seeing herself in that term because of the limited meaning she ascribed to it. She was adamant that relating privilege to race is a non sequitur.

Simply defined, privilege means you have advantages that others don’t. But in reality, it isn’t simple. Privilege is a layered and compounding concept—we are all more than one thing. Each of us is wealthy or poor; straight, lesbian, gay or bisexual; male, female or transgender; living with disabilities; young, middle-aged or elderly; Christian, Jewish, another faith or atheist; black or white, and so much more.

When we define people by a list of realities and traits, we create and take away privileges. By being in certain groups, power and opportunity, access to networks of influence and the inherent assumption of positive intent are given or denied. Investments are made or not. The freedom and ability to create the life you want, through no fault of your own, is scaled.

We owe it to each other to broaden our associations so that we can at least be aware of the realities faced by others. As people working in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, we must lean in to dialogue about privilege, and in particular, we must talk about the disparities inherent in racial privilege. African-Americans have been purposefully and systematically held back in our country, leading to disproportionate intergenerational poverty, less access to quality education and fewer support systems and services.

I find it is particularly hard for people to see and understand privilege and race. Many of us grew up being told some version of, “I don’t see color—people are all the same.” Yet from the murder of Trayvon Martin to two men being asked to leave a Starbucks just for being black, and  too many other examples, it seems pretty clear that when we dismiss inequality with a “problem solved” attitude, we further encourage people to not talk about it. We are denying generations the necessary opportunity to have open dialogue about race in the context of privilege.

As a community of practice, let’s help each other be more aware of our biases and normalize conversations of race and privilege. Here are a few resources and action steps to consider:

  • At Purpose Built Communities, we are trying to not only participate in but actively start these conversations because disrupting the systems designed to disadvantage people of color are central to what we do. We have created a group of leaders from across our network who are boldly contextualizing race and privilege into their work and challenging and supporting others to do the same. Watch a dialogue between these Equity Ambassadors from our 2018 annual conference.
  • The Scene on Radio podcast has a multi-part series called Seeing White that offers detailed history and insight into being white in America. The host is white, and in a favorite anecdote, he interviewed a friend who is a scholar at Rutgers who is an African-American. He asked the host: when you graduated from college, did you think that was a win for your race? The host said no. I saw that as a success for me. His friend said whiteness gives you an opportunity to be an individual and see the world through your own eyes. That is a privilege largely not afforded people of color.
  • Thinking about how investing in equity can be advantageous for everyone is an idea I’m exploring. Author Eric Klinenberg’s book Palaces for the People is about that idea. Public libraries, parks and other common spaces are good for everyone, and they are an important part of equity.
  • If you are going to do this work, more cultural competence is required—we all have room to learn. Wanting to do good is not good enough. Seek out cultural competency training for yourself, your colleagues, your board, your partners. Going through this kind of experience together can help develop a shared baseline of expectations.
  • Let’s deliberately approach our work with humility and a need to understand where others are coming from. Through “cultural humility”—a term I learned through engaging in discussions about health equity—we can better help each other, whether we are talking about medical professionals understanding why a person behaves a certain way or makes different decisions about his/her care, or educators being open to discovering how culture influences the way a child learns and participates in a school environment. Practice listening, observing and asking questions—and over time, perhaps cultural humility can become our way of being in the world.
  • Form relationships that allow you to be transparent about your struggle. Lead, facilitate and foster dialogue, and really hear how the dynamics of privilege manifest in the people and places where you work and care about.

Like me and my long-time friend, when you wade into these things, you will be uncomfortable. You will make missteps. You might offend someone or be offended yourself. It’s an ongoing journey and none of us have all the answers. But I believe that “getting comfortable with being uncomfortable” is what will help us learn and move us forward.