I have an ambivalent relationship with privilege. My mother worked as the cafeteria cashier in the elite private school that I attended. My Irish grandmother worked as a maid in the neighborhood where I now worship and have many friends. Neither of my immigrant grandparents got as far as eighth grade, and my own parents graduated from high school, but not college. I, on the other hand, have an MA from Yale and a BA from Duke. When I was twenty, I thought my education made me smarter than the rest of my family. Now I know I was just luckier.
I’ve been thinking about my Duke education since receiving the most recent issue of the alumni magazine, which traces the recent controversy surrounding rape allegations against three members of the Duke lacrosse team. The additional allegations of racism, sexism, and elitism have kept the national media intoxicated for months. I must admit that many of the stereotypes of Duke as an elite bastion ring true, as do the descriptions of drunken obnoxious behavior. On the other hand, as the magazine points out, not every Duke student comes from a wealthy family, and I must add that not all those who do are obnoxious bigots. One of the nicest women I knew at Duke was the granddaughter of a famous American entrepreneur. Her town and her high school shared her last name, yet she was unassuming and down to earth.
Just as the media have often portrayed Duke as white and rich, they have often portrayed Durham as black and poor. That, too, is an overgeneralization, though like the stereotype of Duke, not without some truth. When I was in college, there was a chasm between Duke and Durham that apparently hasn’t narrowed any. Lately, though, I’ve been remembering one woman who bridged the divide. She was one of Duke’s lowest paid teachers, a dorm cleaner named Annie.
Annie was an African American woman who worked in the fraternity and male dorm nearest to my dorm. God only knows how many beer bottles and condom wrappers she picked up during her many years there. If anyone had reason to believe the worst of Duke students, it was probably Annie. But in addition to her paid work, Annie had a ministry: every semester she would pick a few undergraduates to invite to her Durham church. Because I had friends in one of the dorms she cleaned, I was lucky enough to be included one Sunday.
Our small group of white Duke students was ushered to the front of Annie’s large black Baptist congregation. Although it wasn’t my first experience of being in the racial minority, I had never before felt so conspicuous, as the people around us reached over to shake our hands and smile at us. Annie looked transformed in her choir robe, no longer a maid but a minister of the church. When the choir started singing, the congregation was electrified. It was a striking contrast to the church where I had grown up, a church where most people mumbled the songs and the most common prayer was for a short mass. This service was anything but short, but the spirit never lagged. I remember joy and a sense of community that I had never felt in my own church. I suspected that we (the privileged students) were the ones who were impoverished.
I had a similar experience when I joined the Peace Corps after graduation. Two and a half years of watching my students easily share their only pencils made me realize that people who have less education and less stuff have much to teach those of us who have more degrees and pencils than we can use. I remember coming back to Duke to speak about my African experience when I was still in severe culture shock. I was part of a panel addressing students interested in international issues, and the speaker ahead of me told the students that they were smarter than everyone else in the workforce, so they just needed to work hard and invest in a sharp suit. I winced when she said we were smarter than everyone else, but I didn’t yet have the words to explain why she was wrong. When it was my turn, I just told them that after living in Botswana, I doubted I would ever again wear the expensive suite I had bought for job interviews my senior year because I no longer wanted those kinds of jobs.
All this makes me think of the simplistic ways we categorize people as rich or poor, intelligent or not. Although the three Duke students accused of rape were all from financially wealthy families, their overall behavior reveals a spiritual poverty, even if they are not guilty of the brutal rape. That the media loves this type of story so much—with sex, violence, race, and money all mixed together—probably says something about the spiritual poverty of our society as well.
Remembering Annie has got me wondering about my grandmother, who worked as a maid for rich people herself. She reportedly used her savings to bring several relatives over from Ireland, thus building herself a rich community in Philadelphia. That sounds pretty smart, if you ask me.