Saying “Hello” to Strangers: An Unearned Privilege

got-privilegeWhat do you take for granted?

If you’re white and middle class, you probably don’t expect to be hassled as you go about your day.

  • You don’t expect a floor walker to follow you around a store to make sure you don’t steal something.
  • You don’t expect the receptionist at the doctor’s office to be rude.
  • You don’t expect to be stopped and frisked for doing absolutely nothing wrong.

But you DO expect people to be nice to you, because mostly they are.

Respect — Your Unearned Privilege

The expectation of respect and kindness is your unearned privilege.

When you say “hello” or nod to a stranger, as I often do, you expect them to respond in kind.

I was thinking about these things as I walked to St. Mary’s Park in the South Bronx where I exercise most mornings.

The South Bronx, where I live, is a poor neighborhood. I’m often the only white woman at the park among many men and women who are of different colors and backgrounds.

Some people speak English, but many speak Spanish. Some speak Twi (the language of Ghana) and other African languages.

Saying “Good morning” is a Privilege

I make a point of saying “Good morning” to everyone as I walk around the park. And with rare exception, everyone says hello back. My favorite response is: “Good morning, Mommy.”  (“Mommy” is a term of respect for an older woman in many Spanish cultures.)

These little interactions make me smile. I connect with people and they connect with me. They make St. Mary’s Park feel like a place where I belong.

But even those small connections depend on my unearned privilege that comes from being white and speaking the native language.

I can say hello without fear of reproach simply because I expect people to be nice in return. But no one else at the park says hello first to the people they don’t know. I’m the only one I’ve ever noticed.

I imagine for them, the risk of taking the initiative to say hello to a stranger is simply too high. They don’t take for granted that the response will be positive.

Unearned Privilege Makes Your Life Easier

If you’re a white and speak English fluently, chances are, your life goes more smoothly than if you’re a different color and English is your second language.

To see how you can use your unearned privilege to make the world a better place, watch this wonderful video about an incident you might well encounter.

You haven’t earned the privilege of expecting other people to treat you well. You may not even be aware that many things in your life come easily simply because of your skin color and birth.

But the ease of your daily life depends on them.

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Make a List of the way Unearned Privileges Shape Your Life

It’s easy to overlook unearned privileges exactly for that reason: because they’re unearned. If you’re white and middle class, you are born with many unearned advantages. Start to notice the things in your life that are easier because of your skin color and birth.

What regular occurrences in your life do you attribute to unearned privilege? Please share your thoughts on them in the comments.

  • Michael Katz

    Good morning to you, Andrea! Your bold friendliness makes a difference every day in your neighborhood. Thanks for setting a good example for us all.


    PS – I lived the first 4 years of my life in your neighborhood, but my memories of that time are very limited. Picnicking on fire escapes…..

  • Andrea Kihlstedt

    Hi Michael. Somehow I missed your comment earlier. My apologies. Thank you so much for your lovely words. Sometimes I think that just connecting with “Good morning.” goes a remarkably long way toward making the world a better place. I wonder what would happen if world leaders took more time for simple but heart-felt greetings to acknowledge their shared humanity.