Do you remember the time the barista at Starbucks gave H and me free coffee? Remember how I had strange thoughts about whether or not white people in America get that kind of treatment all the time? Well, recently, a funny thing happened to me…
H and I flew to Sun Valley, Idaho for a ski vacation. H’s favorite thing is skiing, and, once each year, he takes a big ski trip to a big mountain and skis his heart out. For the last two years, I’ve gone with him. Sun Valley is one of the places he’s always wanted to ski, so, late last year, he contacted a travel agent and then he got on the internet to research the mountain, the ski trails, the lodging and food options. What H discovered was that the National Brotherhood of Skiers (NBS) would be having their annual summit at Sun Valley this year.
“You should go!” I encouraged H.
In all my years of knowing H, and hanging out in ski lodges and watching people clomp around in those gigantic, futuristic-looking ski boots, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen even a handful of black people on the mountain. So, the idea of flying out to Sun Valley and joining in with a group of people who look like us seemed very appealing to us both. We aren’t part of the NBS, so we made our reservations separate from the group and then we boarded our flight for the Sun Valley airport, by way of Salt Lake City, Utah. The plane that landed in Sun Valley was packed, and carried just a handful of white people. The rest of the passengers were NBS members. And H and me.
This was the second year Sun Valley would be hosting the NBS. Everywhere, there were signs and banners, welcoming the NBS to Sun Valley. The residents of Sun Valley rolled out the red carpet for this group. In the words of one NBS member, “We brought a little bit of color to Sun Valley.” Clearly, our presence changed the demographics of this quaint and beautiful town for the week.
Now, while H and I look like we might be members of the NBS group, we are not. We didn’t get a packet when we registered. We weren’t wearing NBS wristbands. We weren’t eligible for any of the discounts in the shops and restaurants around the town. But people kept saying things to us like, “We always love it when your group comes to visit,” or, “Is your group having a good time?” or, “I was talking with someone else from your group and…”
In the beginning, H and I would say, “Oh, we’re not with the group,” and the person to whom we’d been talking looked back at us, confused, until we explained we’d always wanted to come to Sun Valley, and, when we heard NBS would be there, we decided to coordinate our trip with theirs. But, the kind people of Sun Valley persisted and, we eventually just let it go. We smiled and nodded and resisted the urge to say, “No, really. We are not with the group.”
One day, I went shopping while H spent the day skiing. In my purse, I had a coupon I’d picked up at the visitor’s center for two dollars off a t-shirt. I picked out a t-shirt and took it to the front to pay. As the cashier rang up my purchase, I remembered the coupon and said, “Oh, I have this coupon…” Without missing a beat, the cashier said, “I’ll just give you the discount for your group. It’s better than the coupon.”
I didn’t say anything. I should have. I should have said, “But I’m not with the group.” I should have taken the two dollar discount instead of the better, NBS discount. But, I didn’t. I got the better discount, because of the color of my skin. I got the better discount, because it’s hard to turn my back on privilege. It’s hard to pass up special treatment when it presents itself, all shiny and easy to grasp.
Now, let’s just be honest, here. If you’re reading this, you can count yourself among the most privileged in our world. First of all, you can read. That is no small thing. And secondly, you’re probably reading this on one of this world’s latest forms of technology: a smart phone, a laptop, a tablet, or even a desktop computer. Even if someone printed this off and shared it with you, you’ve got the privilege of printer and paper at your disposal. If we have clean water, a roof over our heads, and shoes on our feet, we are privileged.
It’s hard to correct someone when they want to offer special treatment, because of perceived or actual privilege. That’s what I realized as I purchased my Sun Valley t-shirt. Whether privilege has been a lifestyle from the word “go” or if it’s something that presents itself just every now and then, it can be a tricky thing to view my life and my situation in its proper perspective, as it relates to the way it impacts the people around me.
So, I’m going to figure out the difference between the discount I received, and the discount I should have gotten, and I’ll write a check and send that money back. Part of me really doesn’t want to. Part of me says, “It’s just a small amount of money. That store will never miss it. And besides, it’s about time black people got over on the system for a minute.” Yes. That’s what part of me thinks. And, I’m sad to tell you, it’s not a small part of me.
The other part of me? The part that is very, very small, says, “Receiving special treatment so readily, especially when it’s based solely on the color of your skin, is a slippery, slippery slope.” In my heart, I know Jesus is my example. He didn’t even consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage (Philippians 2:6). He took that off, folded it neatly, and set it aside in a drawer to come and be like us, so that we could be like him.
In a little corner of my heart, I want to be like Jesus.