I was recently asked which, out of all my articles, was my favorite. Well, I have many favorites, but this particular column often comes to mind, so I thought I would share this open letter which I wrote to the students of Phillips Exeter Academy in 2016. Exeter is a coeducational independent school for boarding and day students between the 9th and 12th grade, located in Exeter, New Hampshire.
While I wrote the letter to the students of Exeter, I particularly had in mind Ms. Foley’s 11th grade history class, for which I had the honor of sitting in on and participating at the “Harkness” table around which the students gather to learn and exchange ideas.
The following was sent to the students at Exeter . . .
Greetings from Philadelphia, and thank you for hosting me during your recent alumni reunion weekend. My time at Exeter was a privilege I would not like to have missed.
As I walked your bucolic paths and climbed your worn marble steps, I ruminated in my heart and mind, like a mantra on my lips, the words found in your Academy seal . . . Non Sibi . . . Not for oneself.
When I sat around the table in Ms. Foley’s 11th grade history class, where a discussion was taking place concerning the period of the Equal Rights Amendment of the 70’s and the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s, I kept thinking of the discussions around our LGBTQ+ tables of conversation and I was reminded of the term “check your privilege at the door.” This is a term I have struggled with for many years now, but Exeter offered me a clearer insight into my own understanding of it.
Now dear student’s, the fact you are all Exonians makes you extremely privileged persons, and you, the “youth from every quarter,” regardless of your social economic background are a very privileged class. One weekend and it was clear that the Exeter experience is a once in a lifetime opportunity . . . whether you can see it now or not.
For the longest time when I have heard the term about checking one’s privilege at the door it was bothersome because it appeared that one was being asked to leave part of themselves at the door and to come to the table without their privilege.
Privilege, done right . . . Non Sibi . . . should not be looked at in the pejorative sense rather it should be seen as empowerment. Not for oneself, but what your privilege does for others as you sit around your tables of conversation, and the tables of science, commerce, and philanthropy to come.
I have come to see that it is only through recognizing and embracing one’s privilege, and not rejecting it, can one help to elevate others to privilege or equality.
Once as a white cisgender gay male I had less privilege in society then I experience today, but by fighting for that privilege, with others who were privileged, who offered helping hands along the way, we homosexuals now enjoy a position of privilege that other members of our community do not yet experience.
John Phillips in Exeter’s Deed of Gift, wrote, “. . . goodness without knowledge is weak and feeble, yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous, and that both united form the noblest character, and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to mankind.”
Character is found in what one does with their privilege. May each of us be mindful of this so that our privilege may be used to elevate others to full equality.