Saturday, May 07, 2011

Mr. and Mrs. Thomas

I saw Mr. and Mrs. Thomas today. They didn't see me. I was in my car, and they were at their van, loading and unloading Mr. Thomas's scooter and wheelchair, then getting in and driving away. I knew it was her because I had crossed paths with her a few years ago at the YMCA pool and we spoke briefly. Mrs. Thomas was my 10th grade math teacher. Mr. Thomas had been the school sports team photographer who remembered the name of everyone he'd ever met even once, including mine. As I watched them from a distance, they were all smiles and ease with eachother, just like I remembered them from high school.

Mr. and Mrs. Thomas were the first black/white interracial couple I knew. I met them individually before realizing that they were married. (The photo of their teenage son on Mrs. Thomas's desk led to the ah-ha moment.) I knew nothing of the state of their marriage, of course, but they seemed happy when I saw them at school, and once when I ran into them at the mall when I was still in high school. In college, I thought of them when I started to date Firmin, and then later when a fellow student informed me (with that smug tone that girls half in love with their professors adopt) that Professor So-and-So didn't believe interracial marriages could work in the United States. Of course Professor So-and-So was a black man divorced from a white woman who apparently found it easier to be a psudo-victim than simply a failure at marriage. But I was only 20 then, and his pronouncement gave me pause. The memory of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas gave me hope.

When I met Mrs. Thomas at the pool a couple years ago, I wondered about her husband. It had been so many years -- enough for even a once-happy marriage to have bottomed out or for death to change everything. For fear of causing pain or embarrassment, I didn't ask. So today, when I saw her with the man on the scooter, I leaned forward and squinted. He was in shadow that made his skin color hard to discern and I didn't have a good view of his face. Plus, I saw Mr. Thomas less frequently than his wife when I was a teenager. She stood in front of me daily for a year, while he took my cheer leading photos a few times and said "Hi, Stephanie!" like he was really, truly glad to see me on the rare occasions we crossed paths. I couldn't swear in a courtroom that the man I saw today was Mr. Thomas, but when the spring sunlight caught his brown skin, his salt and pepper hair, and his warm smile, I was as sure as I needed to be. Most of all, the two of them together just looked like Mr. and Mrs. Thomas. They exuded the same easy camaraderie and affection, the same friendliness and sense of stability. I was so happy to see them. They still give me hope.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Cream Rises to the Top

Oh how I love skimming fresh cream off the top of the jar of milk! Unless we're on our last jar, cream is always ready to hand when we need it. Most of it goes into the cream whipper to top our mochas and hot cocoas. Sometimes a little goes into mashed potatoes, or a desert recipe. Occasionally I make sour cream or butter with it.

Did our parents' and grandparents' generation really give up this little luxury just to avoid having to shake the jug a couple of times before pouring the milk? Surely not. Probably homogenization* was was an industry convenience. Whatever the reason, it's a loss. A small one, sure, but a loss none the less.



*Homogenization is the process of pulverizing the milk fat so that it stays suspended in the more watery portion of the milk, rather than rising to the top as it does naturally. It is not related to pasteurization, which is the process of heating the milk to kill any potentially harmful pathogens. Most milk at the grocery store is both pasteurized and homogenized.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Looking to the Future

Getting one child alone with you in the car can result in some rare and wonderful conversations that just don't otherwise happen in the middle of bustling family life. Eight-year-old Alexander and I had one of those conversations the other day as we made the short drive to MSU. The topic was global warming and the future of humanity. We covered a lot of ground in 15 minutes! It should have been 10 minutes, but I got so engrossed in our dialog that I turned the wrong way a couple of times out of habit, thus lengthening our journey a little. :o)

Alexander started things off by casually observing that all our efforts to reduce pollution only seem to result in more pollution. We explored that a bit. He had a couple of mis-conceptions, but over all, his feeling that not enough change is happening is certainly valid. He very candidly said that he doesn't think we are going to stop global warming. He doesn't think we are doing enough, and he doesn't see people and businesses willing to do more. With all the happy talk directed at kids about "going green" and "saving the planet", this surprised me a little. It also impressed me as an astute observation for an 8 year old.

"So what do you think will happen?" I asked. He didn't know. We talked about pessimistic predictions, optimistic predictions, best- and worst-case scenarios, winners and losers, and points in between. I told him a little about peak oil theory and confessed my reluctant suspicion that maybe we should be listening more to the folks warning us to get ready for a very different way of life. He worried about being hot, but thought that the weather changes could be a boon to farmers in places that are colder now. While he expressed pessimism about our ability to curb global warming at this time, he is somewhat optimistic that humankind will adapt to the major changes that are coming, both through our behavior and with new technology. He is not very worried.

The situation may, perhaps, warrant more worry, but his outlook warms my heart. We need our young people to retain their optimism, even as they try to grasp the enormity of the problems. Whatever adaptations and technology come to our aid, it will be my son's generation (and those that follow) that will implement them and most benefit from them. They will begin -- whether out of intelligent foresight or desperate necessity -- to deal with the problems that their great-great grandparents started, and that their grandparents and parents refused to do much about.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Pictures of my People!

A really fun part of genealogy research is finding photos and portraits of ancestors that you've learned something about. After my post the other day, I realized that I had pictures of several of the individuals I mentioned. I thought it might be fun to share some of them, plus one or two more that are just interesting or fun. If you haven't read the previous post, you might want to do that now, as I will refer to some of the stories I told there.

Remember the illegitimate son of an English nobleman who indentured himself to a Quaker family to come to America? Well here he is, Philip Packer Jr.:
Presumably, this portrait was painted before he came to the wilderness of Pennsylvania, probably when he was still living off his father's money. His father had holdings and business interests in Ireland, and he seems to have kept his little family there quite comfortable. When his first wife died, he married his mistress, Sara Isgar and brought her to his English home. However, since all of his children by her were born prior to their marriage, the children had to make their own way after Daddy's death. His children by his first wife got the estate. Here are Philip Packer, Esq., and the lovely Sarah Isgar, my 10th great grandparents:



Those of you with exceptional memories may have noticed that Eli and Ann Packer were the names of my last Quaker ancestors who died in Gratiot County Michigan in the 1800's. Eli was a direct descendant of these peolple. Philip Jr. became Quaker in Pennsylvania while serving his Quaker master. Perhaps the master had something to do with it, but I suspect the young woman he wanted to marry there had even more influence on his conversion!

Below is Groombridge place, the family home that Philip Packer Sr. re-built outside London in the 1660's. Packer was apparently an architect, a contemporary and friend of Sir Christopher Wren. The grounds are open to the public today, and the 2005 movie, Pride and Prejudice, was filmed there.




The picture below is an illustration of the adventurer with the Persian family meeting with the Indian Mogul in Agra, India circa 1604. His name was John Mildenhall (the family name later became Mendenhall), and his story is so fantastic that I have trouble believing it. It includes passing himself off to the Indian court as the ambassador of Queen Elizabeth I (he was not) and securing trading rights which he later sold to the recently formed British East India Company. Crazy! But apparently true! He is even buried in the oldest English grave in India. You can visit his tombstone there.



On to more normal (and recent) people:

Here is my Great-Grandfather, my maternal grandmother's father, a cute little boy who grew up to have a rather sad and hard life:


Alexander Franklin Fraser

Below are his parents, Bertha Harpham and Clarence Joseph Fraser (of Scottish descent). Clarence was a good deal older than Bertha, and she was widowed young, with no money and several young children. She also had physical and perhaps mental health problems. Her life story -- what I've been able to piece together of it -- is quite painful. Unfortunately, her children suffered right along with her -- a pain that was passed down for a couple of generations until my grandma and her siblings eventually seemed to pull things back together in their own adult lives.


Bertha's mother died when she was only 4 years old, and her father seems to have disappeared from her life at that point. Her mother's mother had died years before in childbirth. So Bertha was was raised by her mother's father, Franklin Squire and his 3rd wife. This 3rd wife had charge of several of Franklin's children and grandchildren by his previous marriages in addition to her own babies as they came along. Plus, for a time, her aging father *and* Franklin's aging father, both in their 80's, were living with the family. Even if her step-grandmother was a saint (and how many of us would be, under those conditions?), I don't imagine poor little Bertha got as much love and attention as every child needs. Her vivid unhappiness in later life, which living family members still recall as their strongest memory of her, is sadly suggestive.

Franklin Squire himself was a busy man outside the home. Not only did he have a rather large farm to tend, he was the early leader of the Michigan Seventh Day Adventist Church that I mentioned the other day. This is a portrait of him:


And last, but not least, I just had to include this picture of my maternal Grandfather's Grandmother. (My g-g grandmother.)
Don't you LOVE the hat? This is Mamie Gooderham Salisbury Harvey Cutler. (Well not Cutler yet in this picture -- he came later.) Based on clues, I believe this may have been her wedding photo when she married her 2nd husband, Samuel Harvey, in 1910 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She was divorced from my g-g grandfather at that time. I believe my he may have been a scoundrel! If I am right on the date of the picture, she is about 39 -- very close to my age right now. :o) My mother remembers visiting Mamie a few times as a child. In her later years, Mamie and her 3rd husband lived very near Tiger Stadium in Detroit. That whole side of my grandpa's family were big Tiger fans! They would meet at Mamie's house and walk down to the games.





Friday, September 17, 2010

Patterns of My People

So I haven't blogged all summer! In large part, it's because I've been spending most of my discretionary computer time (as well as some time I should have been doing other things) researching my family history. A couple of readers have expressed interest in reading about what I found. I've found a lot, and believe me, you don't want to hear it all! Even to my own family the details can be overwhelming, so I won't go there much, in spite of the fascination some of those details hold for me.

Instead, I want pull the focus back and show you the entire tapestry, because, rather wondrously, I've discovered that there are clear patterns and trends, even across disparate family branches and several centuries. Detailed information about individuals has been amazing to discover, but these patterns feel more significant to my sense of self. I don't feel like a different person or anything, but I do have a stronger sense of belonging to a larger story. I could go on about that, but I won't for now -- maybe another day. Perhaps also another day, I'll share how I got started on this journey, if people are interested. I've only been doing it for a few months now and I'm still a little in awe of how much I've learned about my heritage in that short span of time.

For now however, here's a bird's eye view of the landscape and the people who gave me birth:

1) America's story is my story. Before I began this project, I thought that my family in America would trace back no further than the early - mid 1800's. Most of the immigration stories I knew about came from this period. Indeed, most of the branches of my family did immigrate during the 19th century. However, one of the earliest discoveries I made was that I had many ancestors who came to Pennsylvania on ships commissioned by William Penn to bring Quaker settlers to his new charter colony in the 1680's.* One even came as an indentured servant, which no doubt seems more romantic and adventurous to me than it did to him! He was the bastard son of an English nobleman who couldn't inherit a dime, poor guy. That was on my father's side. Later, I discovered that some of my mother's ancestors were in colonial New England as early as the1630's! Can't get much more "founding father" than that unless your people came on the Mayflower. So I'm all in, right from the start -- the good, the bad and the ugly of our country's history is my history as well. That's something I didn't know until just a few months ago.

* I did not have even the faintest inkling of my Quaker ancestors when I became a Quaker a few years ago. The last practicing Quakers in the family, Eli and Ann Packer, died in Gratiot County, Michigan 1867 and 1871. The faith did not survive in the second generation in central Michigan, probably because there were no Friends Meetings there at that time. Although Eli and Ann both had Quaker ancestry reaching all the way back to the time of George Fox, the memory of our Quaker roots was lost in my father's family until I uncovered it this spring. I got to share this information at the family reunion this summer, so now it is remembered again. :o)

2) I come from rural and village people. My ancestors were farmers (many, many farmers), blacksmiths, millers, small-town day laborers, wool packers, weavers, etc. These were the professions of the men, of course, but my female ancestors were of the same stock -- they were the daughters, and then wives of the men who plied these trades. The women's lives are, if anything, even easier to imagine, as they likely varied less according to the trade of their men. They were gardeners, food preparers, livestock tenders, dress-makers, healers, neighbors, friends, pioneers, and perhaps most predominantly, mothers. They were the mothers of 5, 8, 10, 14 children. Most of them, until more recent generations, buried at least one child and sometimes several. A number of them gave their own lives for posterity, dying in childbirth or from complications thereof. These women married later than I'd been led to believe by popular history. Certainly, there were a few 17 and 18 year old brides, but not all that many. 19 was a more common age, with many entering their first marriage in their early 20's, and marrying men who were, on average, just a few years older. (There were some exceptions of course, especially where a man who was a widower wed a never-before-married young woman.)

My nearly complete lack of urban roots did surprise me a bit, given the broad scope of time and places and people involved. Yet even those who disembarked on American shores in New York City seemed to have set out for the country nearly immediately. My few wealthy and well-connected ancestors (remember the bastard son?) were landed gentry -- rich country folk, but still country. With nearly 500 individuals in my family tree so far (not all of those are direct descendants -- some are siblings, etc.) I can think of only one branch of the family that seemed to stay in a city for several generations, and that was colonial Springfield, Massachusetts. I'm not sure if Springfield counted as a "big city" back then or not! It was certainly not rural much beyond the founding years, however.

3) I don't have a single ancestor who came through Ellis Island. So many people ask about this! It's one of the first questions I got at family reunions this summer: "Do we have any family who came through Ellis Island?" Nope. Many people don't realize that Ellis Island didn't open as an immigration point until 1892. (I didn't know this either, until I looked it up.) All the branches of my family were in the New World by that time, save one: my Norwegian great-great grandfather was a stow away on a cargo ship in 1898. I believe he simply slipped off the boat and into the crowds on the dock. An undocumented immigrant...

4) I am a Northerner. So far, I've found not a single direct connection to the American South or West. Michigan, Ohio, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Ontario account for probably 90% of my North-American born family members. The remaining 10% would be from a few other New England states, Quebec, and Indiana. I think that about covers it. Certainly some of my ancestors' descendants or siblings migrated south and west, but no one that led to me, as far as I know. I may have a Native American g-g-g grandmother, but I have only the say-so of my great-grandmother and her sister regarding this, and they are no longer around to interrogate. I know how often this kind of family lore is untrue, so I'd very much like to prove it or disprove it somehow. But even if it's true, she was said to be Ojibway, so still a Northerner!

5) My European ancestors were northerners as well, from England, Scotland, the pre-German states, Ireland, Eastern France, Norway, Finland. No Spaniards, no Italians, no Austrians, no eastern Europeans. One long-ago ancestor, who was quite the adventurer, had a Persian wife and children to whom he left his entire estate when he died. Nice for them, but I'm sure it didn't go down well with his English wife and family, from whom I am descended! So no Persians either, darn it! ;o)

6) No Catholics. I have not been able to confirm a single Catholic ancestor thus far. I do have some Irish potato-famine immigrants (on my father's side) whose religion I don't know, but my earlier Irish immigrant ancestors were protestants. I do know that by the second generation in American, my potato-famine Irish folks were not practicing Catholics, so I don't feel I can assume that Irish = Catholic in their case. Of course going back before the Reformation (which I have not done) most of my European ancestors would have been Catholic, but clearly we've been Protestant (or non-religious in some cases) for a very long time.

7) And the Protestants were often outliers! With Quakers and Restorationists on my father's side, and Puritans and Seventh Day Adventists on my mothers side, I seem to come by my contrary religious tendencies naturally!* One Puritan ancestor converted to Baptist very early on in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and was involved in Baptist "church planting" north of Boston. Baptists might seem pretty mainstream today, but his erstwhile fellow Puritans didn't think so in the 16oo's! One of this Baptist's descendants became a prominent leader in the early Seventh Day Adventist Church in Michigan. Another (the sister of the Adventist) became a follower of Joseph Smith and married an early Mormon elder. (It's thanks to her descendants that this branch of the family is so well researched!)

8) I don't know as much as I would like to know. A sad, but predictable truth: Most of my ancestors remain anonymous to me. I might know when and where they were born or died, how many children they had and perhaps what they did for a living, but that is all. Some left tantalizing clues, such as the obituary of a 4th great grandmother which contains this phrase: "Though surrounded my many depressing conditions, she won and held the respect of all..." I long to know what the "depressing conditions" were, but I probably never will.

9) I know more about some ancestors than I ever dreamed possible. I literally put my face in my hands and gave a little sob when I read this about my 10th great grandmother: "Marjorie was moderately active in the Women's Meeting at Middletown (PA). She served on five marriage clearness committees and one committee to labor with a friend who had failed to uphold Friends' principles." Reading about her serving on clearness committees for marriage over 300 years ago -- something I might do today in the very same tradition -- made her suddenly seem very real and dear to me. Here are some other things I know about Marjorie: Her first husband (my 10th great grandfather) died very shortly after their arrival in Pennsylvania, leaving 30-something Marjorie with 6 children, ages 16, 15, 14, 9, 6, and 3. She remarried (quickly!) in 1684 to a man whose wife had died on the voyage to Pennsylvania. Theirs was the first marriage under the care of Middletown Friends Meeting, which still exists today. Later in life she and her husband became involved in a painful schism among Friends, but Marjorie was later reconciled and was buried in Middletown Friends Cemetery. Her husband never came back into unity with Friends, but his step-son -- the one who had been 6 when his biological father died -- requested that he be buried next to Marjorie. The request was granted. Perhaps only other Friends will appreciate how easy and satisfying it is for me to imagine this request being brought before the Men's Meeting by a loving son, the ensuing Spirit-led deliberation among those in attendance, and the gracious outcome. I think about Marjorie sometimes as I'm going about my daily life and wonder what she would think of me and my world.

10) The tapestry grows exponentially. I'm struck by this: My mother's ancestry -- all of it -- is only half of mine. Same for my father, of course. My grandparents each share only a quarter. My two sisters and I are the only people on Earth who share this specific history as our full heritage, yet we share many of our more recent ancestors with hundreds of others, and each of our distant ancestors with thousands or even millions of people alive today. Our children share our lineage as well, but they have double the number of ancestors we do! My own children's ancestry stitches on the Caribbean Islands and the continent of Africa, making their lineage stretch across nearly half the globe. My youngest sister's new baby will someday trace his father's roots through Mexico and on to wherever else that leads him -- probably Spain, other places in southern Europe, and Indigenous Mezo-America.

The richness of all of this astounds me. I may have traced only a couple of family branches back to the 16th century, but of course they all go back that far, and farther: to the beginning of civilization, to the beginning of humanity itself. We are also growing forward. Someday, about 300 years from now, my 10th great granddaughters will walk this earth, perhaps here in Michigan, perhaps in a far-off land. Probably both, as I'm likely to have quite a few 10th great grandchildren! I will be a tiny part of their tapestries, woven in with all those who came before me, and all those yet to come, gathered and joined to another whole cloth with every generation in an ever-growing family.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

They Were Good... and Flawed

This is the book I'm reading now. I'm enjoying it on an intellectual level -- it's written in a scholarly, yet accessible way. On a personal level, it's by turns inspiring and disheartening. The author, John Moretta, is writing as a historian, rather than a Quaker. (He is not a Quaker, as far as I know.) Thus, in addition to relating the bravery, sacrifices and accomplishments of Penn and early Friends, he has no qualms about pointing out the ways in which they failed to live up to their ideals in the New World. The "Holy Experiment" was not exactly a smashing success. Moretta is not censorious about this; he reminds readers of the conditions -- social, geographic, demographic, historical -- that make their difficulties easier to understand.

Nevertheless, I can't help but feel bad for Penn and the early settlers. They were so sincere in their desire to do things right -- to be an example of what Love and Light can do and to model tolerance and harmony among diverse groups of Christians. Guess what they did instead? They behaved like human beings. Penn played the class card much too heavily and got huffy when the farmers and artisans who mostly populated his colony resented him for it. For their part, the colonists almost immediately challenged Penn's authority over the colony and flaunted laws in such a way that the king threatened to rescind Penn's charter. This could have meant the end of the religious toleration they so cherished, among other things. (In their almost allergic reaction to authority and their refusal to be "managed", I reflected that modern Quakers must come by this trait naturally!) Once the colonial Assembly in Pennsylvania managed to wrest control almost completely from Penn, the leaders in the Assembly set about consolidating their power: changing voting requirements so as to disenfranchise many non-Quakers in Philadelphia and lower the bar for rural residents, who were largely Quaker.

Sigh.

Plus some of them owned African slaves at this time, and few were speaking out against it. but that's old news to me. I was prepared for *that*. What I wasn't prepared for was all the mundane ways in which they were..., well, kinda like Quakers today. They were righteous in all the good and bad senses of that word. They loved God. They disagreed about what "God" was, but they loved It/Him. They took their values seriously and tried to live up to them. They failed at that sometimes. They got jealous and nursed grudges, then realized how painful and wrong that was and made up. (Or not.) They got involved in religious schisms. They griped about Penn behind his back, then happily threw him a big party and parade when he finally showed up after too many years in England. Penn griped about the colonists to his friends, but he clearly loved them and was distressed and genuinely surprised when they exhibited un-Friendly behaviors. They judged and forgave. Families could be harmonious or troubled or both, depending on the day/month/year.

Someone in my Meeting gave spoken ministry this week about how "the universe doesn't keep score", and how that was liberating for him. I immediately thought of this book and about how we humans LOVE to keep score. We can't seem to help it. Even by being inspired by and disappointed in my Quaker forebears, I'm engaging in a kind of score-keeping: Went to prison for beliefs -- 10 pts.; treated Native Americans like fellow humans -- 10 pts.; lobbied for religious toleration (even for Catholics!) -- 5 pts.; didn't decry slavery soon enough -- minus 15 pts.; bickered too much -- minus 3 pts.; Penn a bit of an elitist/colonists bitchy about it -- minus 5 pts.; etc.

The fact is, people (and groups of people) with high ideals get held to a higher standard -- maybe not by the universe, but by other people, and usually themselves as well. That's how it should be. Yet what should be our response when they/we fall or fail? Should we proclaim "hypocracy" and make snide comments? Should we forgive all? Perhaps we should simply Love, and tell the truth. Great -- that's one more ideal to live up to!

I'm looking forward to any comments on this one. There is more to be said about what good can be accomplished simply by trying, not dependent on succeeding, among other things. I may add my own comments as I think more about it, but it's past midnight as I write this and I can feel my brain shutting down... Good night!

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Privilege vs. Freedom

I've been mulling over the meaning of the word “privilege” lately. I've been seeing this word tossed around rather carelessly, often with good intentions, but sometimes as a kind of verbal weapon, and sometimes in a confusing way. I've been thinking that it would be helpful (for me, and perhaps for others) to be more clear about what privilege is and what it is not.

What is Privilege?

Privilege, to me, connotes a special treatment or ability that is not available to everyone, and could not be available to everyone, due to resource, time or space limitations, or issues of practicality or good social order.

Some privileges are granted, based on merit, wealth, social status, charm, or just luck. Getting to sit next to the CEO at the company dinner, being let "off the hook" for a rule violation because you are cute and flirty, getting a second interview because someone recommended you for the job, and boarding a plane first because you have children with you, or because you bought a first-class ticket are all examples of privileges that are granted to some people. These may be seen as reasonable or unreasonable, fair or unfair, but they are all situations where only some people can get special treatment. Decisions must be made regarding who will get the special treatment, if anyone.

Other privileges are simply claimed or taken by force by people who have the power or wealth to do so. Insisting on special treatment at a retail store (and getting it), eating only the choicest cuts of meat at the finest restaurants, using more than one's fair share of fossil fuels, and owning the latest technology gadget are all privileges that are claimed or forced. Some of these are relatively harmless, and may even have some societal benefit – someone has to eat at the finest restaurants regularly if they are to be there for the middle and working classes to sample only once or twice on very special occasions. Many, however, involve an over-use of resources or space or time which results in a deficit for others. (Some granted privileges are problematic in this way as well.) Using more than my fair share of fossil fuels, as I am doing right this minute, means either that someone else does not have access to as much power as they would like, and/or that environmentally harmful fossil fuel extraction becomes more necessary and profitable.

These “real” privileges should be closely examined by those who strive for a peaceful world. In what ways do our privileges – granted or claimed – deprive others of health, well-being, resources, or control over life choices? Can we mitigate those deprivations in some way? Where and when should we decline to be privileged? When is it OK to accept a privilege as a gift or as an earned reward? Are there times when we should insist on being privileged, or on others being privileged above ourselves?

What Privilege is Not

I believe that if a form of treatment or access is, or could be, available to all, then that availability is properly understood as something other than privilege. (By “all”, I might mean all people in the world, or simply all the people in a geographical environment, depending on the context.) I don’t think there is a word that fits every example in this category, but I’m going to call them “freedoms”. Some are actually “rights”, while others might be closer to “courtesies”, but “freedoms” will do as a catch-all word for now. Some examples of freedoms that are not privileges (by my definition) would be: Being treated with friendliness and respect in a retail store; having decision-making power over one's own physical appearance; access to healthy, fresh food and water; the ability to move safely from one place to another; and being allowed to prove oneself worthy or unworthy of friendship, employment, etc. based on personality or performance rather than appearance or stereotype. Many people are routinely denied these freedoms and others, but not because of scarcity of resources. The only reason to deny these freedoms to people is human vice -- hatred, fear, greed, racism, abuse of power. (Even famine and drought are often caused or exacerbated by human vice.)

At this point, I want to bring in an example that first led me to consider a distinction between what I am calling privilege and freedom. The African American author Thandeka, in her book Learning to be White*, uses the following metaphor to describe in part the racial problem in the United States, but her example is also applicable to class, gender, and other inequalities. I will paraphrase, since I do not have the book in hand, and I want to be clear that I don't know if Thandeka would agree with my distinction between "privilege" and "freedom". This illustration makes me think she might, but I have not read all of her book -- yet! I am only using her illustration for my own purposes here; I don't want to be seen to put words in her mouth.

Thandeka imagines a society in which certain people have had their left hands maliciously cut off. As a result there is an inequality of ability between those who have lost a hand and those who still have both hands. This inequality is real and has real consequences in the society, perhaps including stigma associated with being among the group of people who had their hands cut off. Yet it's important to recognize that the norm, the ideal, is to have both hands. The situation is not that the two handed people have been unfairly advantaged, but rather that the one-handed people have been unfairly disadvantaged. The best remedy is for the society to seek ways for its one-handed citizens to function as normally and fully as possible and to work to eradicate any stigma associated with one-handedness, rather than to insist that its two-handed citizens tie one hand behind their back for the sake of "fairness".

I think this example provides an important insight into how we define privilege, as well as how we react to the denial of freedom. Often – though not always – what is termed racial or gender or class “privilege” is actually only the absence of oppression. Surely the cure for oppression is not more oppression! Yet when others are denied freedoms that we enjoy, or when we are denied freedoms that others enjoy, the inequality is bitterly felt and resentment is an understandable by-product. What are we to do? Can we enjoy freedoms that are not denied to us, while maintaining awareness that others are not free in the same way? In what ways can we use our access to freedoms to open those freedoms to more people? If we are denied a freedom, how can we work for or insist on change in a positive direction? When is it appropriate to temporarily decline a freedom for ourselves in order to bring awareness and change to an oppressive system or circumstance? When we do decline a freedom in protest, are we clear that we are working in a positive direction toward more freedom, rather than a negative direction of less freedom for all? How can those with broad freedom partner with those who are oppressed in some way?

A Word About Gray Areas

I am aware that there are many gray areas in this topic. One that jumps immediately to mind is the conundrum of access to quality, fresh food. Is my access to high quality, even organic food a privilege based on wealth, or a freedom that all should have? Probably a little of both. It’s a travesty that many communities with high poverty rates (and relatively low car ownership) have no easily accessible grocery store. Food deserts deny people the freedom to choose good quality food -- especially produce -- but the idea that someone should choose lower quality produce than they can afford simply because some people are unable to access it is silly. It’s also a good way to drive producers of high quality food out of business! That said, access to organic breakfast cereal is probably properly understood as a luxury. It gets trickier than that though: Does buying tropical fruit contribute to my taking of natural resources above and beyond my fair share, or am I participating in an important part of the global economy that provides important opportunities to developing countries? You can see how the thought process can go on and on. Just because all of the answers aren’t neat and tidy, however, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think about the questions.

So What?

I believe this issue of privilege vs. freedom is more than an issue of semantics. I think the confusion of these terms makes public discussion of difficult topics like race and class more difficult. I notice that people who struggle with lack of power in their lives are likely to be hostile to the suggestion that their freedoms are in fact privileges. This is not surprising and not even objectionable when you employ the distinction I’m advocating. Many people in fact experience very little true privilege, and they are unwilling to give up their freedoms simply because someone else is denied them. Advocates of social change are more likely to win people to their side if the effort is seen as an expansion of freedom for *all* and a push-back against abused true privilege, rather than a re-shuffling of comforts in a zero-sum game. I’m hopeful that more careful use of the term “privilege” will result in more clear communication and understanding when we talk about equality and peace and human dignity.


*RCF Friends, we have this book in our Meeting library