This past weekend I was the chaperone for my son and 24 of his friends for a go kart racing birthday party. The boys raced in groups of eight for the first hour or so, and then a few of them started to drop out or take breaks, so I raised my hand to jump in to one of the groups.
After I finished my race, an old friend who was on sidelines laughed as he chided me, “Wow, you really crushed those 13 year olds!”
It’s true, my competitive instincts had mingled with the smell of gasoline and the purring of the kart’s 25hp engine, and I’d driven to win. And win I did.
As I was bantering with my son and his buddies about my old man driving skills, a few of them quipped that Kart #7, which I had raced, was “much faster than all the other karts.”
(That may be, I thought, but that doesn’t explain why I kept lapping them. I’m just a much more experienced and better driver).
Near the end of the party, the last race rolled around and there was one empty kart left. By that point, my son, the birthday boy, had switched to Kart #7. As I buckled myself into another kart, I smiled at him jokingly and said, “Now you’ll see that it’s all about my driving skills!”
It’s true, I did win race #2. By a little bit. In the first race I’d finished nearly two laps to each one of theirs, while in the second race I might have passed everyone once.
But if you’d asked me after Race 1, I would have said that most of my success was due of my driving skill, and that Kart #7 might be a tiny bit faster. What I learned after Race #2 was that most of the difference was because Kart #7 was a lot faster, and I’m a tiny bit of a better driver than a bunch of 13 year olds.
I can’t help but wonder the extent to which many of the differences in the ways we see the world result from misattribution of the credit we deserve for our own successes. It’s nearly impossible not to overestimate the roles our intelligence, hard work and skill play in the results we achieve: a success happens, we were smart and tough and hard-working…so it must be that the primary cause of that success were our smarts, our toughness and our hard work.
The truth is that the veil of our own privilege is one of the the hardest veils to remove. Privilege is not something we can see all at once, and sometimes I wonder if we ever have enough perspective to see it fully.
Harder still, once we spot it, is to figure out what to do with it: the world neither needs us to apologize for all that we have been given nor to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Rather our job is to see ourselves – and others – as fully as we can, and then to use all our abilities and good luck and the gifts we have been given to make manifest the better, more just world in which we so deeply believe.