Checking My Privilege

Last year, I vowed to be more aware of how my life is very different from the lives of many in the community I serve through my library work.

I recently read the book, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, and it opened my eyes to yet another way that I’m really quite privileged compared to many.

When I completed my Master’s degree and began my job search, my top priority was to get my wife back home. She’d spent several years living away from her family and wanted to be near them again.

Everyone I spoke to for job search advice, every article I read, they all told me that I had to be willing to go where the work was, wherever that happened to be. Librarianship is a highly mobile profession. When I restricted my job search right out of the gate to a fairly narrow region of the country, it went against common wisdom. Some people told me I was making a mistake, narrowing my options too soon. Indeed, I passed over many professional opportunities because they were in the wrong part of the country.

But family was my first priority. Getting my wife back home was the most important thing. Luckily, I found a great job at a great public library, right where we wanted to be.

When I tell people why I did what I did—that I chose to put family first despite the potential risk to my career—many people praise me. For much of my life, there has been a sense that families suffer for our culture’s obsessive focus on work and career. Many people tell me how refreshing it is to see someone living with different values.

Now consider a young man very like Robert Peace:

This young man grew up in the urban ghetto, in poverty, surrounded by violence and drug culture. He did well in school and received a scholarship to a good university. He completed his university degree with honors. At this point, he could find a decent job just about anywhere in the country—something comfortably white collar, with a starting salary of six figures.

Instead, he goes back home to the ghetto.

There are no jobs there commensurate with his abilities and achievements. There’s no hope of a stable career. And once again, he’s surrounded by violence.

People criticize this young man harshly for his decision. They tell him what a mistake he’s making, blame him for wasting his education and throwing away all the opportunities that lay at his feet.

This young man made the same decision I did, and for the same reason—family is the most important thing. He chose to make family a higher priority than work and career.

The only differences between me and him—the only things that make my decision an admirable expression of good values and his decision a horrible mistake—are the socio-economic realities of the places each of our families call home.

The risk I took by geographically constricting my job search after grad school wasn’t really that much of a risk. There are library jobs to be had in Kansas City and I can have a good career here. I have the privilege of putting family first without sacrificing work, security, or personal safety to do it. I can come home and still do well for myself.

The young man who grew up in the ghetto has to sacrifice all of those things for his family. For him to come home, he has to be willing to give up hope for a good job and long-term security. He has to be willing to live in the middle of an urban war zone again.

He has to choose between his family or a brighter future for himself.

I get to have both. I can’t ever let myself forget how lucky I am for that.

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