I’ve written before about privilege and losing privilege. After I came to Washington thirty years ago and began working in the inner city with impoverished African Americans, I became aware of the social rankings. Poor, undereducated, African Americans were on the bottom rung of privilege and power. I—white, highly educated, economically secure, and male—was near the top.
It’s not possible for me to give up my privilege voluntarily. I can give my money away, but voluntary poverty is fundamentally different from life-long, imposed poverty. I can’t give my middle-class upbringing away: In my family I will always have a safety net. I can’t give my education away or my white skin. I have had a secure place in our society. People tend to believe what I say and listen to my opinion. When I was young, they didn’t perceive me as threatening when I walked down the street or into a store. As a college kid, I had almost no chance of being imprisoned for the marijuana I smoked. I was given preference in job selection. And so on.
I’m not complaining. Privilege certainly makes life easier. But I didn’t earn the essentials of my privilege; they were given to me.
I may not be able to give my privilege away. But it can be taken away by mental illness or addiction.
As we with Alzheimer’s (or other dementias) become increasingly impaired, other people will drop away, embarrassed or afraid. We won’t be believed or trusted. We won’t have the power to convince people to do this or do that. We won’t be able to drive and may have to live in a locked unit.
Just to state the obvious: On a relative scale, I will still maintain some of my privilege. African Americans begin with less privilege than I and, on top of that, get dementia, too. The same is true for the poor of any race: Poor people get dementia and are still poor. I have dementia and am still relatively wealthy. Even with Alzheimer's, I still come out better, closer to the top.
These past three weeks, as I have experienced how deeply my African-American friends have been impacted emotionally by the verdict in the Travon Martin case, I’ve been more aware of the privilege I start with. The verdict didn’t touch me at an emotional level for it doesn’t affect me personally. I have long known about the vast differences in privilege between blacks and whites: how differently we are treated by the criminal justice system, for instance. Without having to know the legal details of the Travon Martin case, it has been for me just another example in a long line.
I can’t speak for my African American friends, but for them this is not just another example. President Obama spoke of the context in which the case has taken place, a long history of African-American oppression. For African Americans, the verdict is, at the very least, a powerful symbol that evokes their outrage at a lifetime of injustice.
Dementia is not the same, of course, as the American black experience, not even in the same league. It’s not based on a lifetime of second-class status. Only so much will be taken away from me.
Nevertheless, it’s enough to grieve over. I will no longer have the privilege that I’ve taken for granted. I’m not obviously impaired yet, so I haven’t felt the loss of privilege. But it’s coming, and I will know something of my friends’ experience. I hope I can be as gracious to the still-privileged as my African-American friends have been to me.