Let’s Talk About Privilege

Now gather ‘round, fellow middle-class white people…

I grew up about 30 minutes outside of Washington, DC. I’d say my family was middle-class. My dad made decent money but also didn’t have a job for several years post-9/11. We couldn’t spend extravagantly, but I always had what I needed and a lot of what I wanted. My parents instilled a hard work ethic in me, I was the first of my friends to get a job and things of that sort, but I think that was more for the sake of teaching me to work hard and not because I “needed” to work. My money went to whatever I wanted (which, as a teenager, was mostly gas for my car and alcohol for parties); I was never expected to contribute anything to my family.

“I don’t have privilege because [insert struggle I’ve gone through]”

Having privilege does not mean that you haven’t gone through any struggles in life. You can still be a member of a privileged group while having a challenging life as an individual. But your individual struggles, while potentially horrible, aren’t a product of society being structured in a way to make things more challenging for you.

Well, people wouldn’t get in trouble [by school, by police, by whomever] if they weren’t doing anything wrong!

This one is really popular, and really misguided. There are a million directions I could go in with this, but in an effort to keep it concise, I’ll just share a few facts.

All lives matter/we all have problems that need to be solved/only talking about specific groups divides us

I don’t even know where to start with this. If you can’t understand that saying that Black Lives Matter has an implicit “too” on the end, and doesn’t imply that anyone else’s life matters less, then you are lacking a basic understanding of the English language and I can’t help you. If you haven’t taken any time to do any research about what Black Lives Matter as a movement is and believes, or what they want, or why they’re not a hate group, you just aren’t using Google enough.

I shouldn’t be responsible for people being born into different situations, they just have to work harder! Look at [random famous person who made it out of a tough situation] — clearly it can be done!

Obviously everyone should always work as hard as they can. And yes, there are some people who “game the system.” But the reality is, that is not the norm. In fact, it’s so rare, that policies that even might sound like a good idea from the start, such as drug testing welfare recipients, cost the taxpayer a bunch of money and produce no positive effect.

You have white guilt

I don’t have any guilt for the situation I was born into. I can’t help it anymore than anyone else can. What I WOULD feel guilty about, is if I didn’t use my position of relative privilege to try to call attention to these issues and help others.

Now here are a few things privilege DOESN’T mean

  • It doesn’t mean you didn’t work hard or your accomplishments are less worthy … As an example, I am in the process of completing a doctorate degree. You better believe that my privilege is not going to take ANYTHING away from what an accomplishment this is going to be when it’s over. I worked HARD and have a lot of hard work ahead. I gave up fun things during my masters and doctorate programs for the sake of school. I worked full time while doing both. I paid for both myself (with the help of way too many loans that I feel I may never pay off). I’m among the first generation in my family to go to college at all, and the first person in my family to go beyond a bachelor’s degree. Me being white and middle class doesn’t make this any less of an accomplishment. But I can still recognize that many people had to overcome even more obstacles to get to the same place I will be getting to. That doesn’t trivialize my hard work, but it does make theirs even more commendable. Highlighting others’ struggles does not take away from your personal accomplishments.
  • It doesn’t mean you have nothing to offer in conversations or professional settings ….a lot of middle class white people seem to think that by amplifying the voices of others, we are drowning out their own voices and this is simply not the case. We all have something to offer. For a few years, I worked at an HBCU (Historically Black College or University). When I ended up having to teach a couple classes as part of my job, I was a little nervous. I thought the students would think, “What is this white lady doing teaching at our school?” This fear was amplified by the fact that one class I taught was for students on academic probation. In many ways, I was part of their last chance to stay in school, and I didn’t think they’d trust me to help them with that. And while it may have taken them a little longer to trust me, this fear was overall incredibly unfounded. Feedback I consistently got on teacher evaluations was “You can tell she really cares about us and wants us to do well.” Students would recommend me to their friends because they knew that I would really do everything in my power to assist them. Being White, or being from a certain amount of privilege backgrounds, might mean you have to work a little harder to be trusted in certain spaces, but ultimately your ACTIONS are what matter. If you are a good person, people will care what you have to say.
  • It doesn’t mean people are “coming for your jobs”…or your social status ….I don’t feel like any comment is necessary here.
  • To reiterate, it doesn’t mean you didn’t overcome struggles or that everything has been easy for you personally.

Things to Watch/Read/Listen To

I truly believe nothing will change until we commit to learning more about these issues. And we can’t continue to only learn about it from fellow middle-class white people. We might have to be our peers’ introduction to these topics, but eventually, you have to start hearing directly from those impacted by the structural and systemic inequalities that exist in our society.

  • Podcasts hosted by people of color like The Read and Another Round
  • Specific podcast episodes that focus on these issues such as the two-part This American Life episode “The Problem We All Live With”
  • Various twitter accounts — it would be impossible to list all of them but a few good ones to start with include Deray , LeslieMac, Netta, and Brittany Packnett.
  • Shows like Blackish or Insecure
  • Books — they could be funny, like “You Can’t Touch My Hair’ by Phoebe Robinson or serious, like “Between The World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (I admittedly haven’t read this one in full yet, I’ve just read excerpts, but I own it and it is on my reading list to tackle very soon!)

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Sarah

Sarah

Lover of dogs, food, coffee, bourbon, and exploring new places.