Privilege at The Beach

I’d like to do some thinking and talking about how to ensure The Beach is a zone of kindness and respect. A place of “automatic privilege plus meritorious privilege,” where we automatically accord one another expectations for the best and allow each person to earn additional privilege by purposeful work, persistence, and accomplishment. A place where privilege is unaffected by skin color, national origin, who we love, religion, or disability, veteran, or social status.

Recent events remind me that this is not always the case in our society.

Light skin color and high-income levels may attract significant unearned privilege. This privilege can manifest itself in numerous ways that afford automatic trust, deference, and security. Those who are less affluent with darker skin or from other cultures can be targets of micro to macro aggressions, distrust, and low expectations for behavior.

Those with privilege are often unaware of this discrepancy, as people treat them with respect—as all individuals should be treated. When they enter department stores they are greeted with smiles and offers of help. When they ask questions or request additional service, they are answered cordially. On approach, they are seen as benign.

Those without such privilege are thrown, merely by circumstances mainly out of their control, into the opposite context. They may be followed when entering a high-end department store or have their purchasing attempts viewed with suspicion. Others may view their presence or approach with suspicion and fear.

While those who have privilege can see authority figures as benevolent and trustworthy, those without such privilege may experience these same individuals as threatening and abusive. These opposite perceptions can manifest in dramatically different behaviors. For example, when an officer of the law approaches me, I expect to be treated politely and so react to the approach calmly and perhaps with curiosity. My calm curiosity may be completely unimaginable to those without privilege.

The insidious effects of low and high expectations concern me greatly. The research in behavioral psychology is pretty clear that we rise to higher expectations or become compliant and resigned to low expectations. Further, our expectations greatly affect how we make meaning out of situations. That is, if you think I’ll be cooperative and respectful, I am inspired to be just that. On the other hand, if you expect me to be defiant or scornful, I might adopt that attitude, or worse, have anything I do be perceived as such.

My hope is that The Beach can be a national model that counters prevailing understandings of privilege—that through hard work and selfless contributions to the community, each of us can be successful and help others thrive. If we, as a learning community, can embrace that approach, maybe we can teach our nation to do the same. That would be a very good thing.

Expect the best. Be the best.

Go Beach!