On Monday, my youngest child, Lilah, was eating breakfast at our kitchen table. She pulled the newspaper toward her and read the headline: “Girl in the Shadows.” She stumbled on pronouncing Dasani’s name, but got “homeless” pretty easily.
My daughter is 5, and she can read the headlines in the New York Times. Dasani is 12 years old, and lives in one room of a homeless shelter with her seven siblings and her parents, who are battling drug addiction. My daughter and her brothers get a home-cooked breakfast in their own rooms or at the kitchen table. Dasani stands in line to heat up a packaged meal in the cafeteria. My children chose to give up their Hanukkah gifts this year so the money could go to charity. Dasani stopped wearing her uniform to school because she couldn’t launder it. My daughter is in a private kindergarten and my sons go to a public school with a nice playground, computers, and a PTO that raises money for the arts. Dasani’s school may lose its dance studio–the place this girl feels most confident–to a charter school.
How do we talk about this? As a nation, how do we start to really talk about the divide between Dasani and my children?
I believe it starts with honesty. We don’t talk about privilege, not in a personal way, because we fear it will make other people uncomfortable. As a writer, I am guilty. I avoid anything but the vaguest references to what I have because it undermines my credibility to admit that I lead a privileged life. We smooth over difference as much as we can because difference makes us uncomfortable, but that smooth surface is what makes Dasani invisible.
We don’t need to post the balance in our bank accounts to have an open conversation, but only by naming our privilege can we begin to undermine a system of have and have-not. I’ll go first.
I haven’t had to worry about the price of my groceries in the last several years. My daughter wears hand-me-downs out of a reluctance to waste, rather than necessity. I am able to pursue my writing ambitions and be there for my children after school because I do not need to hold down a full-time job. We give our children music lessons and buy them books in addition to regular trips to the local library. We let our children get as dirty as they want to be, because no one judges us by their cleanliness. We’re considering private school for our children, despite a good neighborhood school.
These basic facts set my children worlds apart from Dasani’s life. The advantages they have are astonishingly clear. They each sleep in their own room, except when they want to have a sleepover. They don’t need to sit in a dirty shelter bathroom with the stall door closed in order to get their own space.
And it’s not fair. It’s simply not fair. I know someone will ask why I don’t just give it all away, but not only would that change little, asking that question is not conducive to the kind of conversation we really need to have. Fear of those comments is exactly why people don’t talk about the system of privilege.
We need to talk honestly and respectfully about the privilege that gives some children so much advantage in life. Only through that honesty can we begin to see the need for change. If those of us with privilege silence it or try to pretend we’re not all that privileged, we’re perpetuating the tacit agreement that renders Dasani invisible.
Silence and denial will lead us nowhere, and certainly not towards understanding.
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