Columnist Chelsea Kline: Naming pain, acknowledging privilege will help us move forward

  • Chelsea Kline.

Published: 2/4/2019 8:45:13 AM

When I was a 20-year-old single mom living outside Washington, D.C. in my mom’s basement, I was acutely aware of the vast wealth divide between myself and the people I encountered on a daily basis. I was a nanny, spending long, lonely days with babies and toddlers inside other people’s mansions, pushing strollers along wide quiet suburban streets, feeling like I was a stranger visiting another planet. Wealthy women with leisure time, status and power would drive by in Porches or BMWs, and I would wonder why they didn’t just look simply ecstatic. Why weren’t they beaming with pleasure at how amazing their lives were? Most of them scowled under designer sunglasses, their eyes passing over me, the help, as they made their way to Pilates and then a luxurious massage and cocktails, I was sure of it. I assumed that life was easy and endlessly wonderful for those nameless rich people, and they were just too caught up in their own minutiae to actually enjoy it.

The longer I worked as a nanny, and the more I became entwined in people’s lives and families, the more I learned that there were struggles hidden behind nearly every door of the mansions on the street where I worked. One mother I worked for downed a bottle of wine every night, confessed that she had no friends, and was actively ignoring her recent breast cancer diagnosis. Another family was on the verge of financial meltdown due to the couple’s cocaine addiction. My ability to simply dismiss people based on the size of their houses or their fancy cars started to fade. I learned that each and every one of us struggles. But instead of being a fount of empathy bringing us together, our challenges pull us inward, making it easier to ignore this certain truth: As hard as our lives may be, they are so much harder for members of our local and global community who are gender nonconforming, living in poverty, black or brown, physically different or restricted, queer, or refugees and immigrants. Yet no matter our own struggles, we have a responsibility to leverage our resources to help work for true equality.

One family I worked for was headed by a single mother, Peggy, who was incredibly successful in her own career, and went out of her way to explain to me the unspoken rules of networking and etiquette, help me get into college, and think through my career options. Each of these families taught me something important, but Peggy’s kind mentorship taught me about using the leverage of privilege to help propel others forward, as Natalie S. Burke phrased it. Peggy taught me that with our privilege comes tremendous power to do good, and that is our duty to one another. 

It was due in part to Peggy that I had the tremendous privilege of running for state Senate in the Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester district, 20 years after I was her nanny. During my campaign, I saw firsthand why people like me rarely run for office. The realities of campaigning are utterly prohibitive for the very people whose perspectives we need most. People like me, and especially people of color, are so used to being told to sit down, to work a little harder, keep expectations low, and to allow older, white, wealthy people to speak for us. During my campaign, and throughout my life, I’ve made it a point to leverage my privilege to speak honestly about the innumerable hurdles that low-income people constantly face. 

The ultimate privilege is to not ever think about privilege, as Michael Karson observed. It is much easier to simply not notice the things that are damaging, prohibitive, stifling for others. It takes work and tremendous self-awareness to really see your own advantages, and then allow yourself to feel gratitude for what you have. After feeling gratitude comes action, which can be in the form of speaking up, showing up, or, if the situation calls for it, stepping aside and being quiet. These scenarios can only come about when we truly listen, widen our circles, both personal and professional, branch out, and step outside the echo chambers that many of us comfortably reside within. Building new bridges takes a tremendous amount of work on the part of those with the advantages, but it is our undeniable duty to actively include others who have been shut out. 

If this sounds radical, that’s because it is. Creating the momentous change that is so desperately needed right here in western Massachusetts starts with ordinary people noticing the aspects of our lives where we excel, where things are easy, where we have the advantage — and then making room to help one another. Take the time to consider what you are going to do with your privileges to disrupt the entrenched patterns that hold so many of us down. 

Life is often overwhelming for all humans. I challenge you to notice where you are hurting, where our systems are holding you down. Name it, and demand that those with more privilege be strong allies. This is radical work because many of our current systems have created elaborate ways of placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of those who are hurt the most, and keeping them in acute pain while simultaneously denying its very existence.

We can ease some pain by truly acknowledging our own advantages and pain points, and then noticing how we can use them to open doors, propel others forward, and leverage our power to work for equity. This is the beginning of doing the deeply uncomfortable work of disrupting the entrenched systems that perpetuate white supremacy, squelch social, racial and economic justice, and maintain business as usual for the status quo. This uncomfortable work is worth it, and it is truly the only way forward. 

This is Chelsea Kline’s debut column as a regular columnist for the Gazette. Her column will appear the first Monday of every month.

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