A few weeks ago, I sat next to my 13-year-old daughter on the wooden pew of a dimly lit, historic Presbyterian church in downtown Durham, where we marveled at the stained-glass windows surrounding us. We were there to hear author Amy Julia Becker discuss her new book, White Picket Fences: Turning Toward Love in a World Divided by Privilege. My daughter was the only child in the audience, which mostly consisted of older, upper-class white men and women and a few young couples. With a paper and pen in her hands (since I insisted she take a few notes), she attracted the approving smiles of some of the women. My reason for bringing her was simple: we have not talked enough about privilege in our family, and I wanted her to begin to think about why some of us have it better than others—whether due to race or economic status or education or family life—and what responsibility that gives us. Although she does not fully appreciate it now, my daughter is living the life of “privilege” I dreamed about as the child of a working-class, single mother: she lives in a stable home with a married mom and dad in a safe neighborhood and attends a private school. These are all good things, but they also mean that she is somewhat insulated from people outside that world—not just people of different races or social classes but also from those whose families are less stable than ours. In White Picket Fences, Amy Julia argues that "privilege harms everyone, those who are excluded and those who benefit from it." She challenged me to consider whether I might be unintentionally harming myself, my children, and others by failing to acknowledge the privilege we enjoy and how that can divide us. We spoke about these issues and more in the following interview, which has been edited for clarity.
Alysse ElHage: Tell me about the title of your book, White Picket Fences, and what you hoped to convey with it.
Amy Julia Becker: The white picket fence is supposed to convey a happy, beautiful image. But as people get into the book, it is also supposed to say, there’s more than just happy and beautiful here. Thinking very literally about a fence, we built a fence in our front yard when our kids were little to protect them. And that was a good thing. It made the yard safer. It gave them the freedom that was appropriate at the time, which is to be in the yard but not in the street. But over time, a fence can also become constricting. I grew up in a safe and stable home environment, in a school and in a church that I loved, and I’m so grateful for that. And when I look back and think about the fact that there were no people with disabilities and effectively very few people of color in those spaces, wow, it was also limiting and constraining, and it excluded people, and it also hurt me in my experience and understanding of who I was and who other people were. So that image is meant to be both. And maybe this is kind of pushing the metaphor a little bit too far, but I think the message of the image is to keep the gate open. Have your white picket fence, but keep the gate open, walk through, and invite people in.
Alysse ElHage: I had the pleasure of reading A Good and Perfect Gift, which is about your daughter Penny, who has Down syndrome. How has Penny expanded your understanding of privilege?
Amy Julia Becker: Having Penny in my life certainly changed things in many ways. But when it comes to privilege, I don’t know if I would have used that word when Penny was born almost 13 years ago. I certainly had been aware that I had social advantages in terms of the education I had received, the family I had, and the fact that I was white. But I had not thought through what that meant for me or for other people.
When I had a child with a disability, I started to be very aware. I wasn’t just thinking about people who don’t have what I have, but I was experiencing it. Penny is connected to a community of people who historically have been discriminated against and have been excluded. Fifty years ago, they did not have a right to a public education and often were put in institutions, and they still face discrimination today in terms of workplace and in terms of social and medical attitudes. It’s upsetting to think about people who are excluded from opportunities and advantages and who are just put, by no fault of their own, into essentially a different category. In White Picket Fences, I write about a time when I was looking for a preschool for Penny. And I called a preschool that had been recommended. She was two years old, and the preschool director found out she had Down syndrome and said, “We will not be able to accommodate your child.” She had never met her, had never evaluated her. There was no reason, other than Penny’s diagnosis, to make that claim. And I had never experienced an automatic rejection like that before.
At the same time, Penny was opening me up to people who were really different or felt really different from me—people with intellectual disabilities. I started to think not only about the injustices and really caring personally about people being excluded, but also about the harm to people who were living in an insular world of privilege, like myself. So again, I might not have used the language of privilege to describe all of that, but that was all going on in my head a little bit. And when Penny came, my heart changed, and it became more real and seemed more urgent to me to try to figure out how things might be able to change and how maybe I could participate in that.
It’s amazing to me that human beings are so frail and so easily anxious and territorial and tribal. But we are also so generous and easily loving and compassionate.
Alysse ElHage: As I was reading your book, I immediately thought about Richard Reeves,’ Dream Hoarders, where he argues that upper-middle-class families are becoming, “greenhouses for the cultivation of human capital.” In it, he talks about the “family stability advantage”—that upper middle class, college-educated Americans are more likely to get married, have kids in marriage, and stay married, which, of course, is linked to a host of positive outcomes for their kids. You did not talk about the family stability advantage you enjoyed growing up, although you were raised by happily married parents. Do you connect your parents’ stable marriage to the privilege you've enjoyed?
Amy Julia Becker: I absolutely agree that there’s a connection between family stability and privilege. In my case, that stability came through my married parents. But I think stable homes can exist without married parents, it’s just harder. Either way, a stable home provides a tremendous foundation for people who have come from positions of poverty or even just lower-class backgrounds where those kids become the first generation to go to college. So, I think family stability is a huge factor for me and for my kids.
It’s a good thing that I had married parents, but what I think can easily happen for someone who has been raised by married parents and who is married is that we judge people who aren’t married, and I want to guard against that. I think people with that stability can wonder about people who are not married or who are divorced, "What’s wrong with you as individuals?" when there are collective forces at work—whether it’s financial and tax policies or whether it’s just employment and all sorts of generational systems at play—that affect relationships. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there are some aspects of privilege that I think are really good—like marriage—and we want to figure out how to expand those. There are other aspects of privilege that I think are bad. And we want to figure out how to shrink those. But with marriage, it has not always been the case that being in the working class or being poor or not having the same amount of college education meant that you didn’t get and stay married. Right? So, what happened? And is there any way to go back to that? And what policies could we be implementing that might help that? And we also need to be thinking about what creates a stable home environment if you do have a situation with divorce or with a single parent, or with a death in the family—are there ways to encourage stable home environments?
Alysse ElHage: You talk in the book how you came to view some things you had previously seen as blessings as really more about privilege. Give us an example of that tension, and can some things be both?
Amy Julia Becker: Yes. The example I give in the book that’s probably the most prominent is that my husband decided he wanted to be a teacher, even though he did not have any teaching experience, and he did not have a masters in any subject matter and had been a religious studies major in college. So, he went for an interview at a private school. He did not talk about teaching at all in the interview. The dean of faculty called him a couple of weeks later and said, “We’d like you to come back for a full day of campus interviews.” Before he even went through any of his interviews, the dean of faculty said, “I want to let you know that you’ve got the job, and we’re just going to go through these interviews, so you can decide if you want to come here.” I’ve always seen that as answered prayer. So, it was really a wonderful gift to us, and we did see it as God’s provision in our lives. And I still do in many ways.
A couple of years later, I was telling that story to a colleague of my husband’s. And she said, “Ugh, I hate it when the good ole boy network lets people skip the line.” And all of a sudden, I started thinking, wait, is that what happened? The dean of faculty knew the guy who had known Peter from high school, and he recommended him, and they had family friends in common, and they had gone to the same place in Europe, etc.? I do believe that God orchestrates events and was at work here, but it felt really important for me to acknowledge that if that was providence, it was because God had decided to use the privilege that we have in a providential way, not simply as an answer to prayer. Because if an equally qualified person who had not looked the part had been in that position, I think it’s quite unlikely that they would have had the same treatment. Not to say there is no such thing as Providence or there were no blessings in our life, but I am trying to say this is complicated, and seeing things like this as “blessings from God” can oversimplify the world and fail to acknowledge that privilege is real and that we were benefiting from it.
Alysse ElHage: One of my favorite passages is where you discuss the different ways you view your family and the Southern town in North Carolina where you spent the early years of your life. You write that you’ve learned, “I can hate the injustice and name the goodness of my life, that I can recognize my parents’ flaws and thank them for their gifts to me, that I can stand in the discomfort of the grief and gratitude of who I am as a child of privilege.” I think we sometimes fear that by naming the evil we have seen or experienced in our families or in our communities, this means we can’t also acknowledge the good and the beautiful things that were there, too. Your point is we can do both.
Amy Julia Becker: If we think of a Judeo-Christian understanding of humanity here, it’s that we are sinful and beloved. Today, it feels like we want to see people as either, or—like you are either good or bad, instead of believing we are all good and bad. And it’s amazing to me that human beings are so frail and so easily anxious and territorial and tribal. But we are also so generous and easily loving and compassionate. You know, I read stories about people after times of disaster, and we see groups of people doing mob violence, but we can also see groups of people where everyone is helping everyone else. What’s going on here? We are sinful and beloved. We are frail, yet we are incredibly strong and generous.