We Must Separate Our Power From Our Privilege

How can we better learn to separate privilege and power? That’s the lesson I’ve been trying to learn this week, and one of our local leaders has shown the way for all of us.

I wrote last week about Professor Nancy Shurtz, her blackfaced costume, and the strong feelings the incident provoked.

Many people are anxious and willing to talk about it, which was really my core request. Nick, a Comic News alumnus and stand-up comedian, summed it up neatly with a quote from either Billy Wilder or George Bernard Shaw: “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh or they’ll kill you.”

Ben, a church friend of two decades, faulted me for not my admitted demographic blindness, but for using my privileged position to exhibit it: “You wrote about it in a very public forum, criticizing those who have expressed outrage, implicitly prioritizing [one person’s] experience over others’.” I guess I wasn’t funny enough — but not dead yet. Such is my privilege.

What I learned from dozens of (mostly kind, patient) responses is that African Americans have earned certain privileges, including the right to say, “Stop it.” We don’t use the n-word, because we’ve been asked not to. Blackface, as condescending caricature, is also deemed inappropriate.

I’d like to add one more loop to the current back-and-forth. Every privilege invites an abuse of the power that comes with it. Certain positions carry particular privileges. How can we acknowledge our own privilege, yet reserve the right to decline its attendant power?

Eugene Police Chief Pete Kerns showed the way, in a story reported this week. He and his wife went away on vacation in September, leaving at the house their 20-year-old son. The son took that opportunity to host a couple of small parties with alcohol being served to minors. When Kerns returned home and heard about it, he called the police.

That may or not be what most Eugene parents would do, but that’s a topic for another Friday. Kerns did what his son understood he would do, with the consequences to follow determined by the court system.

Kerns could have kept this incident from becoming public in a myriad of ways. He could have not reported his son. He could have called a police officer to walk his son through the process without creating a formal record. He may have been able to enter into the official log an “accidental” misspelling. He could have asked a judge for a favor. He certainly could have refused to speak to a reporter.

If any of those options crossed his mind, his mind replied, “no, no, no, no, no and no.” He saw a teachable moment for his son, but it’s now one for us too. There’s deep comfort in knowing that our chief of police trusts the system enough to take his hands off the controls available to him. The system will work for his child as it should and as it must.

“Our kids know that if they make a mistake — get a traffic ticket or commit a crime — that it’s going to be totally their responsibility to deal with it,” he told Register-Guard reporter Jack Moran. “They know better than to expect that I would intercede in any way.”

Character-based leadership bubbles up and spreads organically. Chief Kerns made one phone call because he believed it was the right thing to do. People then hear about what he did — his children and his friends, his children’s friends, his neighborhood, his department, his community.

We may hope it eventually reaches a man downsizing into a new white house who has so much power and privilege that he could decide he can get by with less of each. It wouldn’t hurt to see such an example on Page One.

Refusing to exert whatever power accompanies our position or privilege — that’s the sort of leadership we need right now. Using privilege to shield yourself from criticism or attack may smooth a moment, but it makes the road ahead a little bit rockier for everyone.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.