Damaris Zehner: Privilege

Lazarus: on the road to a better life. Photo by Dylan Thomas/UKaid/Department for International Development

By Damaris Zehner

I was an obnoxious twelve-year-old, which should come as no surprise. As a student at St. Mary’s in Waverly, Johannesburg, I complained about school a lot. When I got home, my uniform would be thrown on the floor, where it would generally stay until I shook it out and put it on the next day. I’d bring my bookbag home, but I didn’t do much homework. The supplemental Afrikaans classes I had to take after the regular school day, since I hadn’t grown up in South Africa, I often skipped, hiding out in the bathroom with a book until it was time for my mother to pick me up. I seem to recall a certain amount of whining and sulking, too.

As a U.S. diplomatic corps family, we had a house and servants provided for us. In South Africa the house was pretty luxurious, and we had three live-in servants, a cook, a maid, and a gardener. In my own way, I loved the three of them. They were better people than I deserved.

Jackson was the gardener. He was in his late twenties, a member of the Shangaan tribe from the eastern part of the country. He had just moved to Johannesburg and didn’t speak English fluently. He was strong, hard-working, and shy, with a goofy sense of humor. He had unsuspected depths; once he saw me trying to make something out of a sort of papier-mache modeling medium and not really succeeding. He asked if he could have some and made me a perfect cow, humped, heavy-shouldered, with spreading horns – the symbol of wealth. I have it on my bookcase today.

One day my mother told me that Jackson had asked her to teach him how to read and write; it had never occurred to me that he couldn’t. She was agonizing about the decision, partly because she had never liked teaching, partly because she didn’t know how lessons would fit into the servant-boss relationship, which she was already uncomfortable with. Eventually she decided to go ahead and collected some basic materials. I was vaguely aware that lessons would start on a particular evening when Jackson finished work.

I had been lolling in bed, reading a Georgette Heyer or Enid Blyton book and ignoring my homework. I happened to wander to the dining room just as Jackson came into the house from his quarters. Instead of his usual blue overalls, he was wearing the white suit he had for serving at parties. He clutched a cheap plastic briefcase, not new, probably scavenged from somewhere. I realized that he was trying to be a proper student, like me, with a uniform and bookbag. He was tall and handsome, a man more than twice my age, but even to my adolescent eyes he looked terrified and exhilarated, wound up to face something unknowable and life-changing. He was trembling slightly as he sat down at the table with my mother.

I went back to my room and for some reason found myself crying: shame for myself, pity and admiration for him, anger at the injustice of the world. What I took for granted and complained about was everything to him.

If this were fiction, I would have hung up my uniform and done my homework. I don’t think I did; I know that for years I was an indifferent student, even after we left South Africa. But step by step, in high school, college, and graduate school, I found myself teaching others, until I chose it as my profession – or it chose me.

I still complain – about the grading, the poorly disciplined students, and the hundred ways my circumstances fall short of perfection. But when each new crop of students comes in, I see Jackson. The arrogant jocks, the surly hillbillies, the ex-offenders, veterans, neo-Nazis, and solid academics – they all are waiting nervously for something unknowable and life-changing, whether they are aware of it or not. They may take the whole process for granted, but I won’t forget that education is an extraordinary privilege.

I never saw or heard from Jackson again after I left South Africa at the age of thirteen. I hope that, if he is still alive, he is happy in a post-apartheid country and that he can read and write everything he needs to. I wish he knew the strange link between his sitting down at the dining room table with pencil and paper and rural students slouching into a community college in Western Indiana. Maybe one day he will.

• • •

Photo by Dylan Thomas/UKaid/Department for International Development at Flickr. Creative Commons License

69 thoughts on “Damaris Zehner: Privilege

  1. Only reason Saudi Arabia is the Home of Mecca is that when the British and French carved up the Middle East after WW1 (literally drawing the new borders with pen, ruler, and bottles of whiskey), the Brits rewarded Wahabi bandit chief al-Saud for taking their side by giving his clan (today’s House of Saud) pretty much the entire Arabian peninsula. The previous (now ousted) Guardians of Mecca, a family/clan of skilled politicians for generations, were given their own new kingdom (today’s Jordan) as a consolation/booby prize.

    Saudi Royal Family/Clan or Jordanian Royal Family — which would have done a better job?


  2. So important, EEYORE, YES, THIS! You understand.

    even the most frail among us who may be crippled, and non-verbal and deaf has a purpose:
    to evoke from us a selfless service to ‘give back’ to humanity that which we have to give in abundance: love, patience, compassion, and all the talents that come to us FROM Our God find their purpose in ‘loving-kindness’: acts of love that are given freely to those who need our care, freely without thought of ‘getting credit’ or ‘I need payment for this’ or even ‘thanks’; then WHY give care in this way? Unconditionally?

    Because of Christ’s example to us
    and His Word’s ‘learn of Me’

    You have a talent from God? There is a reason for that talent. Go find it, people. And use it. Then you will be honoring the Giver of Gifts.


  3. So, a Pharisee was out walking one day when he came upon a Samaritan lying in the road having been mugged and left for dead. The Pharisee said to the Samaritan, “So you tell me that I’m at the top of the social order? That you’re at the very bottom and are constantly harassed and discriminated against? Oh please!

    What about me and my problems?

    What about me?

    What about me?

    Me, me, me. Think of all the discrimination we Pharisees face. Now, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, get a job, and go help yourself. That’s what I do.

    The end.


  4. I guess coming into America is a privilege not a right. really posting this to see if it shows up or not. Just for info, Saudi Arabia is the counter weight , if any to Iran influence. Home of Mecca. Testing 123


  5. Robert F. Thanks for the heads up, I just cancelled dinner reservations at Mar-a-lago as they do not have a senior menu or a drive though. 51 violations since 2013, the restaurants I frequent call that a good two week period.

    really wrote this to see if my comments show up


  6. Remind me again: Which country on the banned list were fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijacker/terrorists from?

    Oh, I remember — Saudi Arabia!

    Wait….Saudi Arabia’s not on the banned list? But how could that be??????


  7. The leader of the U.S. and a growing number of leaders in Europe would seem to want refugees from war torn countries like Syria and Iraq and Yemen (Yemen, for God’s sake, where the worst humanitarian crisis in the world is happening because of our good friends the Saudis, with a major assist in weapons and logistics from us ! God forgive us!) to just die. That makes this a sad day indeed, saddest of all for refugees with nowhere to go.


  8. This is a sad day. It’s always sad when our supposedly great institutions are so corrupted as to betray our deepest values as a society. I write of course of the Supreme Court decision upholding what is essentially a ban on Muslim immigrants to this country. They have codified religious discrimination into our legal system based on nothing more than fear and stupidity. I have no doubt this decision will be very popular.

    But what signal have we sent to millions of peaceful Muslim Americans? Not virtue that’s for sure! People have often commented about how our society has largely escaped the radicalization of Muslim communities like in Europe because we have integrated these folks rather than ghettoized them. So now we’re telling them they’re suspect and all our fine words about equality under the law are bullshit. We don’t really want you here.

    You don’t strengthen our country by undermining its values. The vast majority of these refugees are not invading. They’re escaping.

    This is a sad day.


  9. Some truth to that. I absolutely love love love talking with people from all over the world in the cafeteria at lunch time. Chinese, Iraqui, Trinidadian, Haitian, various Latin American countries represented, Europeans of various kinds, you name. I find it thrilling, and anybody who doesn’t seems like the Other to me.


  10. You’d be surprised what I think about. It’s what I SAY that gets me into trouble.

    For example, I don’t think very highly of ‘diversity’. It wastes a lot of CPU cycles. Give me a homogenous organization with a high level of internal conformity and high internal trust level, and they can accomplish a great deal. Even YHWH admitted this, in Genesis 11. What ‘diversity’ offers is a chance to grow in charity and empathy. Not everyone will avail themselves of this.

    I doubt that you modern Cathars of the white Left have embraced and internalized our Lord’s kenotic vision, and are surrendering your privilege based on a desire to emulate Him. You have merely changed the definition of the Others.


  11. Headless U Guy, excellent point about overuse , misuse and abuse of language. People throw the term Nazi around as a substitute for actions they find objectionable, wrong or do not agree with but it takes away the terrible, evil implications of actual Nazi actions . Wannnsee conference in 1942 actually got all the “bureaucrats” to go along with the final solution.

    Went to Chick Fil A last week, the counter guy said was his privilege to serve me so I guess I am promoting chicken privilege.

    I guess eating at the Red Hen is a privilege and the gay employees have the privilege to decide who meets their customer profile and is good enough to eat at the dirty Red Hen.

    I would say a baby born now is privileged as he has no right to life, his Mother gave him the privilege of life whereas another woman denied that privilege of life . So we are all privileged to be born.

    I am waiting for my wife to adopt the Chick Fil A attitude , she will let me know when it takes effect, I am sure it will be soon.


  12. So, until 1968, Whites could get mortgages that Black couldn’t get, to buy low cost homes and properties that escalated in value tremendously over the next decades, and with which they could underwrite higher education for their children and comfortable retirement for themselves? And what did Blacks get? High rises apartments in urban ghettos, where they were shot at will by criminals and police. Gee, what possible difference could any of that make between races in a generation or two? From the frying pan of Jim Crow, official and unofficial, into the fire of drug and crime-infested all-but walled ghettos with no-way-out.


  13. Is anyone seriously arguing that Whites did not have systemic privileges over Blacks in South Africa under apartheid? Get real!


  14. Burro, I don’t hold out too much hope for education as an agent of change, at least not in the way society expects it to be. It isn’t the panacea for underemployment, racism, poverty, or the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. And mostly it’s done very poorly, too. Even done well, it’s a slow process, like dipping candles: an inching accretion that will melt away if you try to hurry it. What education does well is change people; society, with its laws and spending, has to change for those individuals to have opportunities.


  15. It is however through man’s sin, not through God, that there are ghettos and barrios to be born into. Man’s selfeshness sin and cruelty creates both privilege and poverty.


  16. Think of all the White college graduates whose kids get into the parent’s alma mater, some of them the best schools, as a result of legacy preferences rather than their own qualifications, and have been getting in on that basis for decades upon decades. And then Whites complain when states or the feds give racial or ethnic preferences to minority applicants.


  17. Further confusing the issue is that finger-pointing accusations/invocations of “White Privilege” have also been used as guilt manipulation weapons. Add the Zero Sum Game attitudes widespread today and let Entropy set in, and it’s all too easy for white guys like me to write off “White Privilege” as just another Race Card in play. Overuse as a weapon can kill the credibility of legit use of the term.


  18. Every one has a certain type of privilege, American privilege, good looking privilege, being athletic privilege, blonde privilege, and on and on. White privilege is just another new college termed description that is so over used it has lost its meaning.

    Is there a problem with posting today or is it just that I have lost my posting privilege or is there a new rule that comments have to make sense? Wrote 2 Pulitzer Prize worthy comments today and both disappeared. Just checking. Testing 1,2,3 Thanks

    On my missing text you all would have agreed with me, it is my privilege to be self delusional. Testing 123


  19. On the other hand, from those who have more in this life – including privilege – more is expected.


  20. The bottom line, “privilege” is a deeply theological issue.
    God chooses your parents.
    God chooses your gifts
    God chooses your I.Q.
    God chooses your country of origin.

    IF the game of life is about using your Harvard degree to have 500 million dollars in the bank, then privilege is a cruel, cruel game master.

    BUT if the “game of life” is about Salvation – being eternally with God, quite possibly a Harvard degree and 500 million in the bank works against you while being reared in the ghetto or the barrio may end up being a greater privilege than being reared in a Manhattan skyscraper.

    Only a sovereign God understands it, I surely don’t. What I do know, I have nothing to brag about.in this life.


  21. The fact that you think this is funny just promoted you from Object of Anger to Object of Pity.


  22. “There are a lot of times I feel like I have been enrolled in a seminar without my consent.”

    Would you have paid any thought to the issues if you had not?


  23. Looks like my initial reply got lost in the ether. Probably for the best. But I do remember the summary of it…

    Being privileged is one thing. Being privileged and then whining about how unprivileged you are is… not very flattering.


  24. Look at it through the lens of a Zero Sum Game, where since there is only so much to go around, the only way to get more for Me is to take it away from You, and White Backlash becomes very understandable.


  25. Maybe. But certainly it hasn’t always been this way, and certainly in the past these kinds of things have been slanted against non-whites, non-males, with white males reaping the benefits. Like most things, maybe the pendulum has swung too far, but it’s tough to complain too much when you know how non-whites, non-males have been treated in the past.


  26. Similar documents exist called “CC&Rs” for Homeowners Associations (a fact of life in my part of SoCal). Any multi-unit dwelling — even a duplex — requires an Association and CC&Rs out here, and a lot of new construction tracts also require them, mostly for snob appeal. Lotsa horror stories about contro-freak/crooked Associations with delusions of grandeur out there; I even remember a car commercial from 15-20 years ago that snarked on them as “The California Lifestyle”.

    I keep remembering that 60+ years ago, “Whites Only” would have been one of the “Covenants & Restrictions”. CC&Rs don’t use that one any more, but their unspoken main purpose is still to make sure only “The Right Kind of People” can live there. Just now it’s more about money than color. (I cannot remember the name or URL, but there’s a snark blog about such housing stuff on the Web.)


  27. Damaris,
    My father was an immigrant and it was on his back that we three children were privileged to attend university, as he had worked three jobs, sixteen hours a day and on weekends, so we knew not to take it for ‘granted’. I never heard him complain or say he was tired. When the time came to go to college, the money was in the bank.

    When my father was an older person, he managed to get his GED. We all celebrated this together as a family because we knew what it meant to him. He was so proud.

    When I think about what he did with his life, one step at a time, one day at a time, an unremitting effort to make things better, I am humbled. What I learned at university was nothing compared to what I learned from my own father.


  28. I completely believe that you were profiled. White guys cruising for drugs or hookers in a black neighborhood is a classic pattern. But now contemplate how your experience was different from a black guy pulled over on the freeway and fearing for his life.


  29. You want a band-aid and a sweetie? My, how you guys suffer. It breaks one’s heart…


  30. If white guys are so easily discriminated against…

    Why do they have the lowest unemployment rate? – https://www.bls.gov/web/empsit/cpsee_e16.htm

    Why do they make up the great majority of managers and CEOs? – http://fortune.com/2017/06/09/white-men-senior-executives-fortune-500-companies-diversity-data/

    Why are there just as many blacks in jail as whites, when there are over four times as many whites as blacks in the general population? – https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statistics_of_incarcerated_African-American_males

    Why is it that it often takes decades of time and scores of accusers for serial abusive men to actually get called out? – too many examples to count

    Being privileged is one thing. Being privileged and whining about how unprivileged you are is… not very flattering.


  31. I, very much a white guy, was a “victim” of a profile traffic stop in L.A. At the time I was a young white guy driving a cool sport in a minority neighborhood. Cop pulls me over [ I was puzzled, at that time not currently violating any driving laws I was aware of ] approaches with his hand on his gun, ask for registration, license, proof of insurance etc. He took his time reading it over. Finally asked me if I new why he had stopped me. [ I didn’t have a clue ]

    He thought I had stolen the car because I was too young to be the owner of that car and I was in a minority neighborhood to boot. Well he let me go and 10 minutes later I was on I 10 headed East at 90 miles an hour.

    BTW, even today, if you’re a white guy driving an expensive car in a minority neighborhood, you WILL get profiled. Things haven’t actually changed. Cops think you’re there for drugs or hookers.


  32. White male privilege in these United States:


    White man’s privilege includes:
    Easiest employee to be fired without fear of recrimination? White guys.
    Easiest person to abuse without fear of hearing from the Government? White guys.
    The easiest person to blame for any and everything? White guys.
    The one class of Americans you can discriminate against without fear? White guys.
    The fall guy when things go wrong? White guys.

    Hey it could be worse


  33. Thank you, Damaris, for sharing about Jackson.

    Good words, these:

    ” But when each new crop of students comes in, I see Jackson. The arrogant jocks, the surly hillbillies, the ex-offenders, veterans, neo-Nazis, and solid academics – they all are waiting nervously for something unknowable and life-changing, whether they are aware of it or not. They may take the whole process for granted, but I won’t forget that education is an extraordinary privilege.”


  34. ““white privilege for men” is simply – work hard then you die.”

    Imagine yourself as a black person or a woman. Look at the world through their eyes, through their perspective. Now, how do you think the world would treat you in general as opposed to how it treats a white man?

    Perspective. Different types of people have different types of experiences in this world.


  35. East Asians likely are safe enough at traffic stops. Prejudice against them takes different forms. West or South Asians I would be less sanguine about. They look like terrorists, don’t you know? Can’t be too careful.

    I am no purveyer of white guilt. Fearing nothing worse than a citation, and being treated respectfully by public servants, should be the default. But I also am no purveyer of games of “let’s pretend.” Am I at an advantage, or the person receiving ill treatment at a disadvantage? This is a distinction without a difference. The difference between 2 and 4 is the same no matter which direction you count.

    It is also beside the point. Utter the word “privilege” and someone inevitably will point out that he works for a living. This has occurred in this very discussion. And, of course, no one said he doesn’t. That is an irrelevancy–at best, honest confusion; at worse, cynical misdirection. The point is to provide a concrete example of privilege. If I am pulled over, I do not fear that I will be shot because my hand was fleetingly out of the policeman’s view, to be followed by good honest hard-working people pointing out that it was my fault for having my hand fleetingly out of view, and I’m not angel, you know…


  36. There are a lot of times I feel like I have been enrolled in a seminar without my consent.

    Ees “Sensitivity Diversity Training”, Comrade.
    NOT “Thought Reform”.


  37. Funny thing about workaholics…
    They can’t wait to retire and “get out of the rat race”, but they’re so used to always being busy-busy that when they finally do retire, their health nosedives and they don’t last long. That’s what happened to my father.

    Even worse are those who just sit around watching TV for 10-20 years while waiting to die. And becoming more and more bitter as they wait — “Don’t Bother Me! I’m Retired!”


  38. So, this is primarily past-tense and the privilege you refer to in your original post is residual in nature, like a Vanderbilt great-great granddaughter clipping coupons off a bond originally purchased in 1896.

    It no longer exists in its original incarnation, and can be expected to disappear.


  39. > Are there EXPLICIT documents sitting somewhere describing in detail


    This zoning by race was very very common in the American Midwest. It was legal on the Municipal level until 1917. After being officially forbidden in 1917 by Buchanan v. Warley cities switched to using “Covenants” which were technically private-sector documents for regulating banks and real-estate companies – including the licensing as a Realtor, acquiring a license to practice required agreeing to uphold the Covenants.

    In some cities these Covenants covered as much of 80% of the municipal area.

    Covenants preventing minorities from buying properties in certain zones were openly recognized until 1948 [generally defeated by an argument that enforcement was private sector overreach into state authority].

    The FHA was permitted to use race and racial-zone as a criteria for loan underwriting until 1968. This is what people refer to technically as “redlining” although some people include the Covenants under that umbrella.

    > Did they do this with Jews as well?

    Here, not that I know of.


  40. Am I the only one who sees the incredible racism and sexism in

    “BTW, I think so much of “white privilege for men” is simply – work hard then you die”


  41. I’m not sure it’s white middle class only, though. I don’t believe my Asian-American friends have fear of traffic stops, either. So rather than looking at it as a “white middle class privilege” (and feeling guilty about it), maybe it’s better to view it as an “African-American disadvantage.” And it’s a disadvantage that sucks, and one that shouldn’t exist, and one that needs to change.


  42. I am confused.

    Are there EXPLICIT documents sitting somewhere describing in detail the racial composition of neighborhoods which are used for the extension and refusal of loans? No dog-whistle neologisms or euphemisms, no winking and tapping on the shoulder?

    If this is true, than as a racist, I’m a rank amateur and a poseur of the first degree. My heart really isn’t really in it. Did they do this with Jews as well? Hell, what do you have to do to rise to the level where this degree of racism is socially acceptable?

    Oh, I’m sorry. I see you used the past tense in your description, although you used the present tense in your original post. I suppose that this was the status quo ante say, about 1965. My intuition tells me that the sentiment remains the same, but the language has changed to protect the guilty.


  43. A distinction should be made between deserved and undeserved privilege and we must do our best not to confuse privileges with rights. Education and health care are rights due to every person by virtue of their being part of the community, a debt and responsibility we owe to each other. Education and health care should not be looked at as privileges attained by virtue of financial success.


  44. No.

    It was about where people could and could not buy property, and if they could or could not finance purchase or maintenance – the criteria for which was in every way, undeniably, robustly documented, explicitly, about race – says it right there in plain English.. Once can take stroll between the cities’ A, B, C, & D zones and look right at the difference. My families property was in a C zone [some threat of an encroaching black population] and across a through street from a D zone [having an established black population].

    It was also about who was allowed in which education institutions, who0 got promotions, and in what industries one could work.

    “past performance” was facilitated and inhibited by public [and corporate] policy – nakedly, obviously, undeniably. Nobody needs to bring-race-into-it, as it says it right there in the documents, in plain English.


  45. My white middle class privilege is that when a policeman pulls me over for a traffic stop my greatest worry is that he will give me a ticket. And when he calls me “Sir,” he almost means it.


  46. Great story. Like the fact that most of us take it for granted that in a pinch we can drink the water out of the tap, it never dawns on us that there are people who would dearly love to read and write if given the chance to learn.

    I’m curious though. Do you see any limits to the possibility of education to effect personal change? So much of what I read on line and in what falls into my hands touts education as a panacea for the world’s ills. Joe Bob lost his job in the mine? He needs more education so that he can learn to code websites. Jessica’s made racist remarks in eighth grade social studies? She needs more education. Teach her about the Holocaust and the Middle Passage. There are a lot of times I feel like I have been enrolled in a seminar without my consent.

    PS – Chances are neither Georgette Heyer nor Enid Blyton, with their casual racism and strictly circumscribed gender roles, would be welcome in the modern classroom. It goes without saying that I must remedy this gap in my reading forthwith.


  47. > but can it be transferred to somebody else?

    Yes, certainly.
    The morality of Privilege is the question of if one spends it or hordes it.

    > “white privilege for men” is simply – work hard then you die.

    Nah, it is better funding for schools, etc… which generate a myriad advantages. And it is the reality that I can walk into a bank and get a loan to build a new building in ~25 minutes, at an interest rate less than the average rate of return on my investment account. Privilege is all the ways society says: “Thank you just for being you, and having the parents who had” – It does not say that to everyone, to some people it says “No, you need to do twice as much before we will give you that”.


  48. My grandfather was the same way. His “retirement” lasted all of three months. After that, he worked as a construction foreman, a Coast Guard Auxiliary patrolman, and at the very end, groundskeeper at the factory my father worked at. Sitting around and doing nothing just wasn’t in his makeup.


  49. Damaris, I now own, on Kindle, every Georgette Heyer book she ever wrote. So many of them are just awesome.

    I do think the issue of “white privilege” is real, but can it be transferred to somebody else?

    [ BTW, I think so much of “white privilege for men” is simply – work hard then you die. I am a few years past normal retirement age, still work 7 days a week – but not 8 hours a day. Retirement is not actually in sight. I suspect I will be working until my body or mind no longer allows it. ]


  50. Thank you for sharing this lovely memory. There is no profession more sacred than teaching and no higher priesthood than teacher.


  51. Thank you Damaris.

    I will not forget the older black woman who on a 3 day train trip accepted this 7 year old’s bids for attention and gave me what I needed with loving kindness.


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