‘When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality seems like oppression.’ (Capitol Updates)

flesh crayonsSteve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol. You can find past Capitol Updates archived  on his website.

There’s not much news out of the Capitol this week, so I thought I’d reflect on the traumatic national week we had.

I recently saw a posting on Facebook that keeps coming back to me. It’s not among the ones you might think I’d be talking about. It’s not the picture of Alton Sterling lying on the ground dead with a bloody chest. It’s not the one of Philando Castile dying before my eyes and the eyes of his 4-year old daughter. It’s not the one of Dallas Police officers ducking behind buildings trying to figure out where the bullets are coming from. Horrible as all of those are, I’ve seen plenty of those kinds of pictures before. Repulsive as they are, they are unfortunately not out of the ordinary. I’ve seen it all before, way too often.

I don’t know if you saw the one I’m talking about or not. It was a picture of an open box of crayons. There is perhaps a half dozen crayons showing, of different colors, black, brown, tan, and several others including the one that more or less matches my skin that is usually labeled “flesh.” Except in this box of crayons ALL the crayons were labeled “flesh.” The black one was labeled flesh; the brown one was labeled flesh; and the flesh one was labeled flesh. The caption at the bottom of the picture was “when you’re accustomed to privilege equality seems like oppression.”

This one brought me up short, and I can’t get it out of my head. Think about that. When you’re accustomed to privilege equality seems like oppression. I don’t recall ever thinking there was anything peculiar about the color of my skin being labeled “flesh.” I never thought of it as a privilege that my skin was the one called flesh. I didn’t put the label on there. The box of crayons came that way. I wouldn’t have known what to call it if it weren’t labeled flesh. It wasn’t really white. There was another crayon labeled white.

So that’s the thing about privilege. We don’t feel responsibility for it. I didn’t structure things this way. When I got here that’s the way they were. I’m just playing within the rules that are already here. Why should I feel guilty about something I didn’t do? Maybe that’s a fair point, or maybe not. But here’s the problem. When some fair-minded person who sees the privilege tries to change things, then I begin to feel oppressed. I think it’s all about me. I think it’s aimed at me. I feel like the whole thing is about taking something away from me. And I resist.

My first reaction is usually to ridicule the fair-minded person. I can start by labeling him “politically correct.” He can’t be just trying to do the right thing. It has to be about making himself look good at my expense. If that doesn’t work, I can move on to other labels. I can call him a liberal or a RINO or soft or weak or an apologist. If name calling doesn’t work I feel justified in resisting any way I want to, because, after all I’m in the majority and majority makes right. Finally, if all else fails, I can sue him in court or resort to threats or violence.

You know, race is front and center now as it should be because we’ve reached a point where we can no longer live with things the way they are. It’s outrageous that over 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation we are where we are. But, lest we forget, race is not the only way people enjoy privilege. One of the most widespread is religion. Every year, it seems, we have to have a fight about Christmas. When I grew up we had Christmas break at school. We decorated the classrooms for Christmas. We gave each other Christmas cards. We had Christmas parties. We built a float for the Christmas parade. Then someone came along and said, “You know there are quite a few people around now that worship some other way, or don’t worship at all. It’s sort of privileged to take a whole season of the calendar and just label it for us. Can’t we find a way to include these other people, too?” We say, “Privileged—are you kidding? It’s always been this way.” We say, “Let them have their celebrations if they want to. You know, separate but equal. You’re just being politically correct.” Besides, we’re the majority and majority makes right.

That’s just one example, but privilege is everywhere. Sometimes we fall on one side and sometimes we fall on the other. But there is a common theme. We usually don’t realize it until someone else points it out, and we usually resist changing it. We say we are for equality, but when we find out we are at an advantage we resist letting other people in.

Our gospel reading in church last Sunday was the story of the good Samaritan. The lawyer asked Jesus what it takes to inherit eternal life. Jesus asked him what is written in the law, and the lawyer answered correctly, “to love the lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and to love your neighbor as yourself.” But that wasn’t enough for the lawyer. “Seeking to justify himself, he asked ‘who is my neighbor?'” The lawyer, as lawyers always do, wanted some qualifiers. When do I have to treat someone as a neighbor? Do I have to bake a wedding cake for him if in my opinion he’s not really getting married? Do I have to offer her a baby shower if she’s not married and I don’t think she should have gotten pregnant? Do I have to pay for his health care if he can’t earn enough to take care of himself? Do I have to pay for his drug treatment if he’s the one who got on drugs? Do I have to pay for her education is she’s here illegally? Do I have to include him in my Christmas parade? What are the qualifiers to being my neighbor?

We, like the lawyer, want to maintain our own privilege. We tend to want to be a neighbor only to people like us. We want some qualifiers on whom we have to treat as a neighbor. Jesus showed the lawyer that a neighbor is anyone in need. A man fallen victim to circumstances is a neighbor, even if he was dumb enough to travel a dangerous road alone. But Jesus enlarged the question and the answer. A neighbor is not only someone who is in need. A neighbor, like the Samaritan, is someone who is willing to help the person in need. We need to ask ourselves if we are neighbors to the people in need around us. Most of us fall on the privileged side in more ways than not. What can we do to be a neighbor? We all need to talk about it. We need to figure out what we should do to be a neighbor. Together we can figure it out. More than that, we need to do it.

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Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

5 thoughts on “‘When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality seems like oppression.’ (Capitol Updates)

  1. Well written piece, or at least the first half. It’s a shame that you lapsed into white male Christian privilege at the end. You began by talking about the privileges we take for granted, then spent the second half referencing a male Jesus (oddly usually depicted as white in American culture) citing a white male Christian God as his authority, talking to a male Samaritan in a story from a Bible compiled by men for a male emperor. One of the privileges we HAVE to let go of is always describing everything historically, anecdotally, etc. from the perspective of a history written by of the ruling class. Recognizing that is a good step in the right direction, but implementing it is what brings about real change.

  2. I appreciate the point of this piece, but must ask, what crayon box has a color called “flesh”? The only names I’ve seen over the last 30 years are peach and apricot for what is typically considered the color(s) for white skin. Further, a few years ago, I was given a box of 8 crayons named “Skin Tones of the World”. Again, I appreciate the sentiment, but I think the continuous references to a “flesh” crayon are outdated at best. The crayon companies are not as behind the times as this piece implies.

  3. Speaker Lewis, i’m so glad you’re writing for the Policy Institute. Yes, you hit it exactly right.


  4. Thank you for this thoughtful essay. I often think about the days when bandaids were also labeled ‘flesh’ color and was happy to see that practice end. Quickly followed by the realization that ladies bras and panties are offered in ‘nude’ to this day. Guess what color that is? On another note, just recently a video of a 14-year-old boy, Royce Mann, went viral for his incisive poem about white privilege. When I sent that link to my son I commented to him how astute Mann’s awareness was but added that Mann’s plea to call out discrimination when you see it overlooks the sad fact that we often don’t realize what we’re seeing. My son responded that that is the
    overriding privilege, to be oblivious. The privilege of not realizing our privilege.

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