They had just opened the four-lane divided highway between my hometown and the county seat, some 15 miles away. They had been working on it all my life, and now it was wide open, and I had just gotten my driver’s license.
In those days, I drove a 1972 Ford Torino with a 302 V8, a 4-barrel carburetor, and a speedometer that went to 120, even if that was largely aspirational. The wide, straight lanes were irresistible to me and others, and it quickly became the place where races happened. Which is how it came to be that I was doing 85 miles an hour when the blue lights showed in my rearview mirror, and my heart was now in my throat as the Highway patrolman was walking toward my car.
He looked at my license and then looked at me.
“Are you Hugh Hollowell’s boy?”
This is one of the downfalls of having a dad who everyone knew.
“Well, I should give you a ticket. But at the speed you were going, it would be expensive. I’m not going to give you a ticket this time. But I am going to call your Daddy and tell him about this.”
“If it’s all the same to you, sir, I would just as soon have the ticket, and Daddy not know anything about this.”
He howled, he laughed so hard.
“I bet you would. OK, consider this a warning. It’s lucky for you I know your daddy. Get out of here, but for crying out loud, son, slow down.”
With both hands on the steering wheel, I drove home at 45 miles an hour, aggressively using my turn signal.
* * *
Because of all the struggles around the water system here and the utter unpredictability of when they will get it straightened out, I bit the bullet and bought an under-sink reverse osmosis water filtration system.
It cost around $200, all told, and it took a rather lazy 2 hours to install. I needed a drill, a ¼-inch drill bit, a Crescent wrench, a pair of Channel Lock pliers, and a Phillips-head screwdriver, all of which I already had. I’m pretty sure a plumber would have charged around $300 to put it in, plus parts, and if you had bought it from a door-to-door sales company, it would have probably been around $1800.
I was telling someone about it and my decision to do it, and they said, “You’re lucky you know how to do that.” Well, in the first place – I didn’t. I mean, I had never installed a reverse osmosis machine before. But the instructions were understandable, and I took my time and worked through them.
But It wasn’t that I was lucky – it’s that I was privileged.
Privilege is a polarizing word these days. But it needn’t be. It just means you have access to something someone else doesn’t have.
Like, with the water filter. It was simple for me to install and I could afford to do it and had the time to do it. None of those things are guaranteed to be true for someone else. If I worked at Dollar Tree, I probably wouldn’t have a spare $200 lying around. I used simple tools, but if I had to buy them for this task, it would have added substantially to the cost. I had the 2 hours to spend doing it. I had a father who taught me to be confident with tools and handwork.
But it doesn’t stop there. I’m a homeowner, so I didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission to install the water filter. I know how to read and have good reading comprehension skills. I have internet access and a credit card. I have no physical impairments that would prevent my doing it.
And every one of those things is a point of privilege. I carry many other points of privilege as well. For example, I’m a white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, well-read, Christian male born in the United States of America. In the world I live in, every single one of those points gives me access to things other people don’t have. And I didn’t ask for any of them.
Other people that Highway Patrolman pulled over that day did not have access to having a father that worked in EMS. I wasn’t smarter than those people, more affluent than those people, or have an easier life than those people. I just had access to an advantage they did not. And because of that, I did not suffer a penalty they would have. Or, put another way, my relationships gave me privileges (like freedom from the consequence of my actions) they did not have.
In the same way, my privilege buys me freedom from uncertainty around the quality of my water that some of my neighbors do not have. It doesn’t mean anything except that I have access to things they do not, through no fault of my own or theirs.
Since most privileges we have were not asked for, I see nothing to be ashamed of for having them. I’m not ashamed I’m white, not ashamed I grew up with a father who taught me to use tools, not ashamed I’m male. It was not my doing that I should have any of these advantages, yet I have them all the same. It is much like having won the lottery without having bought a ticket.
But if you are fortunate enough to have more than others – more food, more advantages, more skill – it’s incumbent on you to use that for the benefit of those who don’t.
So I am not ashamed I am priviliged. I’m just ashamed of all the times I didn’t use those privileges to benefit folks who don’t have them.