White Privilege, the Capacity to Leave, and the World’s Changing Games
—by Jinny Batterson
As our nation veers closer and closer to fascism, I’m dismayed and unbalanced. How did we come to this point, I ask myself? How was I complicit? How can we as a society rebalance?
As a “leading edge boomer white female,” I’ve followed a similar trajectory to that of many liberal-leaning members of my cohort: protesting the Vietnam war; attending Earth Days; joining various consciousness-raising groups; experimenting briefly with consciousness-altering substances; absorbing uplifting books, films and workshops about human possibilities; doing a Peace Corps stint in sub-Saharan Africa; later, in semi-retirement, doing shorter volunteer or low-paid assignments teaching English in rural China.
Where I may have diverged from classmates who moved to the suburbs, raised families, and enrolled their children in “superior” school systems, is that for over twenty years, I lived in America’s core cities. The neighborhoods where I settled were “marginal,” working class, multi-racial. At first, this was an economic necessity—my twenty-somethings were littered with lots of employment mis-steps and accidents. Rents and mortgage payments were lower in areas that had been written off by most of the real estate establishment. But I stayed. Partly this was a semi-conscious effort to atone for some slaveholding ancestors who conferred on me an undeserved inherited advantage. Later, it was partly to help prepare our children for a global society with no single dominant group. As I got to know my neighbors better, my staying got to be more and more about their kind and forgiving natures, and their partial immunity to the materialism I saw so much of elsewhere. I chose to be a visible “minority” presence. And there’s the rub.
The neighbors who surrounded me in inner city Baltimore or inner city Richmond had fewer options for leaving than I did. Legal discrimination, or, increasingly, lack of income or of inherited wealth, made it difficult or impossible for them to afford housing in “better” areas. When I lived in Burundi and visited with peasant families in Burundi and Rwanda, most had little chance for schooling beyond the most elementary levels, in crowded, under-equipped classrooms. Few could travel, either in their own countries or abroad. Their prospects for improving their lot in life were terribly limited. In high schools or agricultural colleges where I taught English in China, students were not likely to be able to use their skills—after graduation, most would work long hours at soul-destroying jobs in big cities. They might at best be able to show off for their parents or grandparents on holiday visits back home.
By contrast, I could take time away from Baltimore or Richmond to recharge at a summer cabin by a pristine lake in Vermont. When sub-Saharan Africa got too depressing, I could join my family on extended holiday in Europe. In China, I spent a winter break at a posh beach resort, a summer interval being escorted by a high-ranking official around the historic sights of Beijing.
The world I grew up in is changing at ever-increasing speed. Within the U.S., we are becoming more immigrant, more “non-white,” more interethnic than ever. Globally, we’ve expanded travel and communications by orders of magnitude. However, we’re also changing our earth’s atmosphere and oceans in ways that will make life less predictable and probably more difficult for all living creatures. Movie fantasies aside, precious few of us have the wealth and/or training to be able to leave the planet and survive. This changes the game, even for those of us with privilege.
The new game requires me and others with privileges conferred by birth, inheritance, skill and/or luck to practice “not leaving.” Of course, I will still need to protest injustices, to improve my environmental stewardship, to raise my awareness, to celebrate human possibilities. But I will need to do more. Even in situations that make me uncomfortable or defensive, I will need to remain fully present, and then to listen, deeply. I will need to practice staying, and staying, and staying. I can no longer afford not to.