Tuesday, March 8, 2016


I have it. My friends and family do. I suspect that most of my readers on The Buddha Diaries have it, too...

Privilege. I was thinking about this as I watched the final episode of Downtown Abbey, with its cast of exceptionally privileged Edwardian aristocrats upstairs and its dwindling force of family retainers down below stairs. I was thinking of my own privilege, which I have benefited from since birth--without always being aware of how I used it. The son of an English country priest, I was not of the upper class but had easy access to it: as a young man, I would attend the annual "hunt balls" and, at Cambridge--talk about privilege!--the May Balls in white tie and tails. I breezed through--not Eton or Harrow--but a respectable public school and Cambridge, without a thought to the privilege that was. My nice English accent--and the privilege to which it testifies--was more responsible, I have always thought, than my intellect and knowledge, for the succession of academic appointments I enjoyed.

I was thinking, too, as I watched that episode and thought about privilege, of my own American story. I have been in this country since the early 1960s, and my life has been a blessed one. I had, yes, in many ways an enviable career in academia; and was privileged to have been able to leave that career when I chose, long before most are able to. I have been fortunate to be able to "follow my dream" as an independent, freelance writer these past thirty years. And so much of this has little to do with merit, but rather the whiteness of my skin, the good fortune of my birth and education.

So, yes, I'm privileged. And, yes, I often forgot this along the way, assuming blithely that it was somehow all my due. And, yes, to give myself some credit, I did work hard for it, too. But I look around me in America today and I realize just how much unconscious privilege dictates the way we live our lives, the way we think, the way we conduct ourselves in relation to other peoples in the world, the assumptions we make about our fellow human beings here at home. And, of course, our political orientation.

I can't do anything about my privilege, really. I can't disown it, like an old friend with whom I have now lost touch, an English earl who (nobly!) disinherited himself from his titles and estates. It's just a part of me. It does, however, behoove me to be fully conscious of it, and to live in the world in that full consciousness. By which I mean, to bear my privilege in mind when I interact with others, so many of whom don't share it; to act in the world with the understanding that my actions can easily be influenced or motivated by it; to recognize that even--perhaps especially--lacking my privilege, every other human being shares exactly the same rights, which deserve exactly the same recognition and respect.

It's this that privilege too often causes us to forget. We have come a long way since Downton Abbey, but still not far enough.

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