Confronting My Privilege
Three unearned advantages that opened doors for me and how I shoulder that responsibility.
My mother is a quiet force to be reckoned with. She is my earliest tutor in the legacy of black women’s endurance and my gold standard of generosity; the yardstick I use to measure my own good works. My mother taught me to be thankful because, “No matter how bad it gets, someone else has it worse.”
When I was around twelve, she was volunteering to serve on a food truck outside of our church on Wednesday nights before bible study. The truck fed anyone who appeared, for free, and my mother jumped at the chance to serve.
There was this one night in October, a boy, no older than myself, appeared wearing only jeans, some beat up tennis shoes, and a thin hoodie. I remember how red his nose was because autumn on the East Coast is no joke. It may look cute- but that wind will get you and he looked like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. She handed him his food and he sat on the church steps eating like we were going to take it away.
He cleaned his plate and made to leave when my mom caught up to him. I watched from a distance as she got his information and, the next thing I know, we were skipping church and on our way to Bradlees, a New England discount department store that closed in 2001(gone but not forgotten in my mind, RIP).
It’s important to say, here, that we were not rich. My mom had just gotten a job as a pharmacy technician, but that pays no better than a normal retail job and in Fairfield County it wasn’t enough to keep us out of poverty. Not even my dad’s consistent child support could take away the stress of living paycheck to paycheck. But we found ourselves in the Kid’s section of Bradlees, picking out a coat strong enough to insulate this boy from whatever the cold threw at him.
Mom never mentioned this to me again. In fact, we’d be in the grocery store and I’d watch as she’d buy double of the essentials to give to someone she just met who just didn’t have the money. And she hasn’t ever mentioned how much anyone owes her. My mother acts without expectation because she believes it’s her duty.
I am her only child. I am what she has left behind to continue that tradition of giving because it is the right thing to do. It is a really hard baton to carry and, while I haven’t dropped it, I sure as hell haven’t taken it very far. Becoming an adult this far from where I grew up, I have taken too much for granted and I haven’t even thought about how I benefit from forces I had no say in choosing.
I visit the topic of privilege often. My own journey in “wokeness” is still fairly new and while I have explored the avenue of white privilege, I have only recently acknowledged the ways in which my life has benefited from my status in these three key areas:
- I am cisgender. When I was born, the doctor designated me “female.” There has never been a time that I have discovered otherwise. I can go into a women’s restroom and not have to fear being attacked by bigots because they’ll assume I belong there. If I’m murdered, there is a higher probability that my murderer will be found and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law (unless they’re a cop).
- I am heterosexual. I love romance novels and when I was a kid, I worshiped Jane Austen and forced my mom to watch all of the Masterpiece Classic adaptations of her books. There has never been a time that I’ve had to pretend my favorite fictional couples were other than what they were, because my sexuality is considered the standard. Even being a black woman, I don’t have to go far to find sexual identity represented in pop culture. I’ll never have to come out and face being persecuted by society for who I love.
- I have access to people on higher levels of privilege. My parents divorced when I was about two years old. My dad met the love of his life (shout out to the stepmom!) and they moved to where she came from- North Dakota- before settling permanently in Minnesota. Now, no one in this situation is rich but my dad landed in a position to expose me to another world. I spent summers with them and observed life through the lens of a black girl in overwhelmingly white spaces. This is a tricky thing to call privilege but my access to a world outside of the ghetto gave me connections I can lean on and a safety net that others don’t have.
My privilege doesn’t make me better than anyone. It doesn’t put me on a pedestal and I do not want to be celebrated for these privileges I have not earned.
No matter where I am in the grand scheme of things, someone has it worse. As a person with the hand I’ve been dealt, I am starting to look closely at the ways I am responsible for being a partner to those without my luck:
- I am learning how not to center myself in someone else’s struggle. When a black trans woman expresses outrage at our community for refusing to acknowledge her existence, I listen and validate her experience. My experiences as a black ciswoman don’t give me the right to overshadow her’s. The moment I react with, “Yes but what about my *insert experience here* I become a part of the problem. It’s not about me.
- I am learning to be more vocal to those in my category of privilege. Spending summers in the Midwest, I acquired a taste for things that did not exist in a Bridgeport reality. Being a voracious reader, my vocabulary was extensive and my parent’s demands for proper diction meant I spoke differently than my peers. Plainly, I sounded and acted like a white girl to my hood friends. As I grew up, a new problem presented itself: other well to do black people criticized other black folk for not being “like us”. For a long time, I was silent when faced with these arguments. In fact, there was a time I agreed with other lucky black people. Then I woke the f*ck up and realized that I wasn’t being criticized by my own because they hate me personally. They picked up on my outside interests as a rejection of blackness and them. It was behavior I projected as a defense mechanism that hurt people I respected. Now that I know better, I do better.
And that’s it. Knowledge is power. I know that I benefit from three distinct points of privilege but I am still a regular human being. The world is turning in such a dark direction and all I see are ways in which we try to mitigate blame or deny our luck because we feel it’s an indictment against us.
All I know is that what makes me good or bad aren’t the circumstances I benefit from, but how I use that luck to boost others.