Why I Will Keep Talking About Privilege

Confession: for a very, very long time, I had absolutely zero idea just how privileged I am.

Oh, I knew I was fortunate. I knew that I was blessed. I knew that I had been given things that many other people had not been given. My parents made sure that I saw enough of the world around me to know how truly lucky I was to live the life I was living. But I didn’t realize that the privileges I had were more than just parents who loved each other and had good jobs that could provide for everything we needed and most of what we wanted.

It was not until I joined Teach for America that I really began to understand privilege in the sense that seems to be so controversial these days (white privilege) and even beyond (Christian privilege, heterosexual privilege, etc.). Looking back, I don’t even know exactly when the shift happened. Maybe if I did it would be easier to explain, but the truth is that somewhere in those two years I became aware of all the privileges I receive on a daily basis through no merit of my own.

I distinctly remember a conversation during Institute where a group I was working with was extremely surprised to find out that no one had ever questioned my abilities in math or science because I was female. The other women in the group told multiple stories of times that teachers talked down to them or professors assumed they were in the wrong class or people told them there was no way they were really smart enough for upper level science courses. Even the men in the group told stories of things they had seen happen to the women they knew.

I was floored. I had never experienced anything like that. I was never very into science, but no one in my life batted an eye when I took AP Calculus and my parents frequently told me I could have been a rocket scientist if I wanted to be. After that conversation, I began to wonder if maybe I just hadn’t been paying attention (I did frequently have my nose in a book and my head in the clouds). It wasn’t that I started looking for prejudice under every rock, I just became aware that it was something that existed, so I started noticing it. It’s like when you learn a new word and then it shows up in the book you’re reading and on a tv show you’re watching and then in a conversation with a friend. It was probably always there, it just never really meant anything to you before.

Over the next two years, I became more and more aware of just how privileged I was, but it didn’t come from reading articles or listening to public radio. It came from attending a church where black men talked honestly from the pulpit about their life experiences.

It came from being friends with Ian, who not only introduced me to the fabulous world of Joss Whedon (for which I will be forever thankful), but also shared what it was like to be gay in the South.

It came from being friends with Carmen, who shared her experiences as not only a Latina, but one who was constantly being forced to navigate and defend all the varying aspects of her racial and cultural identity, while frequently being told that she was too white or too Latina or too whatever.

It came from my friend Samantha, who is still so patient to point out to me when I’m assuming things about my students based on my middle class background rather than the more difficult circumstances she and they experienced.

It came from my friends adopting the most beautiful African-American girl and sharing with me the struggles and blessings that has brought to their family. It came from looking at that little girl and wanting so desperately for her to know that while she is absolutely adorable, that is not what makes her worthwhile or valuable or loved.

And it came, of course, from my students. My amazing, wonderful, brilliant students who get pulled over for no reason and are forced to empty their pockets in convenience stores and have the n-word yelled at them when they walk down the street and are called thugs and criminals by cowards commenting on online newspaper articles and who want so desperately to make this world more than it is and better than it is and are so rarely given the resources or opportunities or trust to do so.

And while as little as five years ago I probably would have argued that white privilege didn’t really exist or wasn’t really that big a deal, now I feel like a fish who has finally figured out what water is. In the wake of the Trayvon Martin case I see other people who don’t see the privilege or can’t see it or don’t want to see it and I find myself trying to explain it to them and my words fall short.

But I keep trying to explain because it feels so important. Because I look back on the naive girl that I was and wish that I had known so I wouldn’t have said and done some of the callous things I did. Because there are still times when I catch my own bias and my own prejudice and I wonder how it is possible that I have learned so much and still know so little.

The truth is that I have no idea how to explain these things to people. I realize that I just sound like another ridiculous bleeding heart liberal feminazi to some people. But I will keep telling the stories that others have told me in the hopes that maybe it will help someone else learn what I have learned too. And then maybe someday our country can be what I believed it was in high school – a land of equality and fairness and justice.

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3 Comments

  1. Bess

     /  July 16, 2013

    Rachel, this is such a beautifully written article. You continue to be an inspiration to the world around you. Keep it up, girl.

    Reply
  2. SB

     /  July 17, 2013

    Rachel you demonstrate some very good instincts here: (1) a deep humility for what you have (“what do you have that you did not receive…” – I Cor. 4:7), (2) a sincere empathy that leads to involvement with the needy (“look not only to your own interests, but also the interests of others… – Phil. 2:4)

    My encouragement would be in your humility and empathy towards the needy, don’t compromise truth. Integrity requires it. (“speak the truth in love…” Eph. 4:15.) And we owe this to those we care about. While many in the Zimmerman case are cocksure they know what the truth is – your example of humility and empathy would better serve us now. It will make the inevitable reconciliation with the truth easier.

    Reply

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  • A collection of ramblings and musings on Jesus, life, education, family, and anything else that pops into my head.

    Twitter: @rachel_heather
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