Tuesday, July 12, 2016


I have been struggling for a long time about whether or not to write this post, how to write it, and whether or not it is ok for me to write this post. I've struggled for a few reasons. 1. Lots of people far more qualified than I am are writing about this topic in more intelligent and poignant ways that I am capable of. 2. It's difficult to know, when one wishes to be an ally, what is truly helpful to a cause and what is simply an attempt to make myself feel better about how little I can truly to do to be of service. 3. I haven't wanted to deal with the possible repercussions of vocally supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and have thought that since my voice wouldn't add much to the discussion it was acceptable to remain silent.

But the past few weeks have made it clear that remaining silent will help no one, and that one of the useful things I can do with my own privilege is to talk about it and help people understand and put things into context and perspective as best I understand it.

So here I go. I may take a while to reach my end game, but I hope the journey will be instructional.

I was about 20 years old and a junior in college the first time someone tried to confront me with my own privilege. Unfortunately, as it was the first time I had ever heard of privilege outside of strict socioeconomic terms and as the young woman who brought it up also tied it in with some patently false assumptions about my background, I missed the point entirely. I think the concept might have been fairly new to her as well, as by the end of a 45 minute discussion we reached a stalemate and she didn't take her point any further.

The problem, you see, was that she lumped my socioeconomic privilege in with my racial privliege and assumed I was in the same situation as most Georgetown students: she assumed that my parents were paying for my education, and that to be able to afford that education for me my parents likely came from established wealth themselves. She was wrong on both counts, and I sidetracked the whole conversation to disprove those two points rather than accepting that I might be privileged in other ways.

My parents were not paying for my education. They had once been wealthy enough to do so (they paid for my ludicrously high priced private school education leading up to that point) but were no longer, and I was paying for my education through giant private college loans (I didn't qualify for federal loans or financial aid) with my eldest brother as cosigner, and working two part time jobs on the side. At the time, comparing myself to the majority of students at Georgetown, I did not consider myself privileged. I was wrong, of course, but with my limited understanding of the word and concept at that time, I didn't understand that. Don't get me wrong, I considered myself very fortunate. I had enough perspective to realize that I had experienced many things in life that lots of people would not be able to... but that didn't mean I understood privilege. Far from it.

Not only were my parents not paying for my education, but the assertion that they had both inherited their own wealth and good fortune irked me. My mom grew up on a tiny farm in podunk Tennessee where she spent her summers as a farm hand, wore flour sack dresses because they couldn't afford to buy fabric, and worked her butt off to get straight As in school, earn a scholarship to go to college, and be the first in her family to earn a college diploma. Meanwhile, my dad, who grew up in a reasonably well off family, was cut off from any financial help from his family when he decided not to become an engineer like his own father. He had to take multiple years off to save up tuition money and take enough prereqs to be able to get into and then pay for a Stanford undergrad and then Harvard Business school. He too had worked his butt off to get where he was.

So between those facts and the fact that, unlike the majority of my classmates, I was paying my own way through school, I was completely offended at the idea that I was somehow privileged.

Sadly, it has taken me years to fully understand what was at the root of that conversation, because I glossed over it so quickly in my rebuttal and perhaps because my conversational companion didn't make her point very well. Regardless, I wish I had really heard what she was saying.

What she was saying was that there was a certain amount of privilege I held just because of the parents I was born to, as they held privilege because of their parents and so on.

Privilege is precisely that. It is an advantage granted to you through no achievement of your own, but merely by the circumstances of your birth. It can apply to wealth, education, and yes, what people call "race."

Unfortunately, the fact that, scientifically speaking, race isn't actually a thing, does nothing to diminish the way that people of different ethnic backgrounds are treated in our society. So, there are obstacles that people who have visibly different traits are automatically confronted with that many of us are not. This is true for people with disabilities both physical and mental, true for people with weight issues, true for people who aren't male and, most importantly to today's discussion, true for people whose skin color doesn't fit the box marked "white."

All other things being equal, a black woman my age, with my same educational background, afforded the same chances to travel around the world, live, study, and teach abroad, work in private schools, and coming from the same economic privilege that I have come from, will have to face, probably DAILY, obstacles that will never be presented to me. Simply because she is black. Be it in the form of being treated less politely by someone at a coffee shop, being turned down from a job because of her race, or worrying that her loved ones might be shot for a routine traffic infraction, she is confronted with obstacles that I am not. The fact that I don't have to face those same obstacles is called white privilege.

You can be far less privileged than I am, and still have white privilege.

Let me just be clear about one thing: that doesn't make you a bad person. The very definition of privilege is that it is something that you neither worked for nor asked for, but something granted to you without any doing on your part at all. So it is not your fault that you have it. We do not choose our parents, we do not choose the circumstances into which we are born. You should feel no more responsible for your own privilege than anyone without privilege should feel for not having it.

That seems to be the part that makes people uncomfortable. Because recognizing that you yourself have privilege through no fault of your own can make you aware of the fact that people who lack privilege do so... through no fault of their own.

In a society that is all about pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps, this can be a difficult pill to swallow. We are convinced, told many times over throughout our lives, that in AMERICA a person can build themselves up from nothing. And we see many examples of that to reinforce the idea. Surely if one person can grow up on the mean streets and still become a successful entrepreneur, anyone can do it. Surely nothing holds anyone back in the good ol' US of A except being lazy and not trying hard enough.

That was honestly how I felt about it when I had that conversation with a fellow Georgetown student who tried to explain my privilege to me, when I wouldn't let her. My brain said, "But my mom grew up poor, went to public school, and earned her scholarship and then moved out of the south and slowly worked her way up the ranks of TWA to become one of the first female executives in the company. If she could do that, what's to stop anyone else?"

My mom is white, her home was stable enough for her to actually attend school, and her parents cared about her education. All of that is a form of privilege.

Should she feel guilty about that? No. Should that detract from her sense of accomplishment for all the hard work she put in and what she's gotten out of it? No.

But for me (or her) to pretend that it was just as hard for her as it would have been for someone of a different background is to deny the evidence that we see repeatedly in study after study. Discrimination exists, and it makes it exponentially more difficult for minority groups to achieve the same ends as non-minority groups.

And simply not being one of the people who discriminates against minorities in general, and black people specifically, is not enough anymore.

We have reached a crisis point. Perhaps we've always been there and I've simply never noticed before. Either way, people are dying for no other reason than the color of their skin and that has to stop. There is no easy fix for this, but there is a fix, and we have to start down that road. In my little bubble here I have trouble seeing what I can do, but the one thing that occurred to me was that I could write about it and hope that it sparked something in others, or at least sparks a conversation.

A couple of points about Black Lives Matter as a movement and as a statement (with a couple of caveats: 1. I do not claim to speak for the movement; it is a movement I support, but if you want the full story on Black Lives Matter please go directly to the source 2. what I say here is based on my understanding of the movement and if it is flawed that is my fault and not that of the movement's 3. as with ANY movement in history there are bound to be disagreements amongst members and supporters and context is vital to understanding, so please keep that in mind):

  • when someone says "Black Lives Matter" that does not mean they are saying that other lives don't matter or that other lives matter less
  • the #blacklivesmatter movement exists because there has been a consistent, repetitive rejection of that notion by multiple systems in our government
  • while some people's kneejerk reaction of "alllivesmatter" is somewhat understandable when taken out of context, this response does not take into account that currently not all lives are at risk from police brutality, or systemic discrimination
  • retorting "all lives matter," or "blue lives matter," to a #blacklivesmatter hashtag is only reinforcing the notion that black lives don't matter. Black people aren't asking for special treatment, they are asking for equal treatment. They are asserting that they have a right to exist in the world that is as a strong as anyone's. Do not belittle that. 
  • for a very clear explanation of the development of the movement and why it's important not to change the message to "all lives matter" please read this from the movement's founders
Because I still feel weird talking about this as an ally rather than a black person, here's one of my favorite youtubers addressing what Black Lives Matter is as a movement and after that, how white people can help: 

And, finally, because sometimes humor is the best way to convey these types of messages, here's a video that is simultaneously funny and infuriating as it tries to explain Black Lives Matter:

In conclusion, I want to say that I know this issue is complicated, and I know that many people struggle to accept their own privilege and what that means, but it's important to think about, and it's important to recognize that the state of human rights in the US right now is unacceptable. As someone who is currently gestating a new human life, it is especially clear to me that I don't want Speck (the nickname for my currently unnamed proto-human) to grow up in a world where it's ok for people to be killed in the streets just because an authority figure whose job includes carrying a gun was some combination of racist and frightened. Sadly, that is the world that Speck will enter in September whether I like it or not, but I am trying to figure out all I can do to help change that as quickly as possible. So far that has included signing petitions, supporting a social media movement, and writing this blog post for my fellow privileged folks. I hope to figure out more things I can do to help soon. I encourage everyone I know to think about what they can do in their own circles.  Thank you for reading this far and for accepting that this is how I'm channeling my confusion and sense of loss in the wake of not just these most recent tragedies, but also all the injustice that we've seen over the past few years. And that's just the picture that's made it into my line of sight, which is undoubtedly an incomplete one. So please, please, please, take a few hours to educate yourself about this important issue and form your own opinions based on actual facts and not what any one news source throws at you. Take the time to read about the lives of the victims in all of these killings, take the time to ask yourself why they were killed and see if you come up with an answer that satisfies you. 

If, at the end of all that, you find yourself wondering why this is still happening, consider figuring out how you can help change things. Thank you.


No comments :

Post a Comment