Thursday, February 26, 2015

Sheild of Privilege

By Matt Whalen
Current volunteer with Cap Corps Midwest

Protest march in Washington, DC, December 13, 2014

From 4-6pm at the Maria Kaupas Center (MKC), my ministry site for Cap Corps, there are on average 60 kids ages 9-18 inside the center at once. As we can all imagine, some days there seems to be complete chaos and others days there is relative calm. On most days though there is a mixture of both. A little bit of singing, dancing, arguing, studying, breaking tables (on accident of course), and just being, all happen in this two our window. In this “just being” phase of the day is when I get to know the teens better, in particular the older guys.

One day though, after reflection ended and we were all making our way out of the chapel, I noticed three guys that stayed back and gathered in a pew. While this is not a rare occasion, this time I felt the need to go over to them and just check to see how their days were going. After a few minutes of casual talk, one of the guys told me he saw me walking around the neighborhood on the weekend and was surprised to see me around outside of school hours. He then continued to ask where I shopped for clothes, because according to him “my style doesn’t match the stores around here.” We both laughed and I told him I mainly shop at thrift stores.

This little spark of interest led a handful of others guys, about 5, to come into the chapel, which led to a two hour conversation. In the conversation I shared more about why I was volunteering, that I live in their neighborhood, and other parts of my life. All the guys graciously shared much about their past and I am grateful they did. They were surprised that I don’t get paid, that I walk home, and that out of the whole country I chose to live in Southside Chicago when all they want to do is leave it. They shared with me the realities of living in Southside and the daily struggles they face. Some of them even opened up about things I could not imagine going through.

Matt and youth at Maria Kaupas Center
Toward the end of our conversation, the same guy who called out my wardrobe choice said this: “Life is hard out here Matt. But no matter how long you live here you will never experience it because you have a shield on and it’s called being white.”

With the recent Eric Garner and Mike Brown incidents and protests, we as a center have openly discussed race relations and the teens have been so open in sharing their feelings. The guy who told me “life is hard” is one of the most vocal and his statement could not be truer. What I have realized more than anything else in the past few months at MKC and in Cap Corps is that I wear this “shield of privilege” that protects from the realities people of color face. This shield of privilege is something that I cannot take off because it is engrained in my skin tone and in the middle class suburban upbringing I had. When I tell people I live in Southside Chicago, most people cringe and apologize that my safety is at risk.

Quite the opposite though, I am probably one of the safest in my neighborhood. For example, I can walk through different gang territory and am never mistaken as a part of the other gang. When I walk into a store or church, the clerk or clergy does not follow me around. I don’t have to worry about looking suspicious if I wear my hoodie up and even where I lived is surrounded by an iron gate. This shield of privilege has layers upon layers and not matter how hard I try to strip down to the core, there will always be another layer that either protects me or propels me into the stream of easy living.

It is complex and institutional, stereotypical, and exclusive. I can do things to help dirty the shield, like protest, live in the neighborhood I work in, give up some of the non-essentials, but my past already gives me a one up. I have a college education and I actively chose not to make money this year! Plus, I would be lying if I say the privilege I have is not beneficial, I just wish it wasn’t for a select few.

Protest march in Washington, DC, December 13, 2014
So as the year continues, the best thing I can do is recognize that this shield is always with me. From there I can start using it to protect people of colors’ rights, maybe swing the shield to the left to be exposed for a while, or a least get it dirty through activism, expanding my perspective, inviting more diverse people into my life, and having more conversations with the kids I work with. For people of privilege, the first step is to recognize our privilege. Not to try to hide from it and say history is behind us and everything is hunky-dory, as we can see in Ferguson, New York, Sanford, the education system, and so on. What I can do is be a voice, an educator and more importantly a learner of my privilege and fight for equal rights of all my brothers and sisters through firm resilient love.

See the original post here.