Nowadays, the worst thing to be called is “racist.” After which, there is “sexist,” “classist,” etc. You get the idea. There is a huge misconception about what it means when minority groups of people (be it of color, class, religion, gender identity, etc.) say the majority people have privilege. Folks seem to think that if they are in whatever majority group that is being called to task, that they are being attacked somehow. That the minorities have their panties all in a bunch and are accusing the majority of having everything be perfect and rainbows and unicorns.
Well folks, let me help you out. It is not about you.
Is that too harsh? It isn’t meant to be. But it is true.
When minorities are talking about privilege, we are not making a judgment about you and how you are a bad person for being part of the majority. We are talking about our experiences as minorities. So guess what? You probably don’t have those same experiences in that same context. And just because you have never personally experienced what we are talking about, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. To us. Or other folks like us. Or a LOT of other folks like us.
Look, a person of privilege can’t help being in that position anymore than a person with less privilege (and we all have some mix of privilege and non-privilege depending on our environment and surroundings and daily living). We don’t choose what race we are born, to what class, to what parents. We are all conceived (without any say), forcibly birthed, and just thrown into a situation at an inconvenient time. We figure out how to be a person given our environment, our families of origin (or lack thereof), and our perceived reality.
So let me reiterate. It is not about you.
(Part of me is even annoyed that I have to take into account the majority group’s feelings. I mean, cue the world’s smallest violins, right? But again, I have to remind myself that I am often in the majority group and when I am confronted with my own privilege and complicity, I want grace and understanding and forgiveness. So, I try to be that way to folks who are genuinely distressed and wanting to learn. If folks are just being obstinate asshats, however, I just try my best to be polite and stick to facts versus giving into my gut instinct of bludgeoning people with sarcasm and contempt. Because hey, nothing persuades like contempt.)
Anyhow, what was I saying? Ah, yes. A person can’t help being privileged and benefiting from those privileges. And really, why wouldn’t you want to benefit from your privilege? I certainly enjoy benefiting from mine.
(And I absolutely identify as a person of privilege. I may be a Taiwanese American woman, but I am highly educated, financially well-off, Christian, American, thin, extroverted, married, straight, and reasonably attractive. All of those have privileges attached to them in some way or another.)
What a person can help, however, is how they use their privilege.
Do I use my privilege to, at best, be an ally and help lift other people up? Or, somewhat status quo-like and keep people “in their place” or just keep the “peace”? Or, at worst, actively campaign to stamp my boot across the back of their necks and hold folks down?
The thing is, most people, myself included, don’t want to be bad people. We just want good things for ourselves and our families. As long as other people don’t interfere with my objectives, it’s cool. You know, a general sense of live and let live. We don’t want to rock the boat.
Plus, not only do we want to think we’re good people, we want to think we earned everything that we got. That we are only in our current position because of all our hard work, our suffering, and that we didn’t get anything from anybody else. That somehow, we are lesser or weak if we got any help along the way. (Which, if you can’t tell, is a load of malarkey.)
This type of thinking always reminds me of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air episode, Will Gets A Job. Will tells Uncle Phil that he wants to be a self-made man and never need anyone else’s help. Uncle Phil sets Will straight by saying he had lots of help. Many people opened doors for him and there was nothing wrong with him walking through those doors. (Clip below.)
And that’s the way with privilege. There is nothing wrong with being a privileged person. It doesn’t make you inherently a bad person or racist or sexist or whatever. Having benefited from privilege doesn’t make you weak or less hard-working or less-deserving. But that also means that those who did not benefit from privilege might not be quite as undeserving or lazy as we think they are. (It doesn’t mean they aren’t, either.)
However, when we are in a place of privilege and someone who isn’t comes along and tells us their experiences and we dismiss them or mansplain or whitesplain or whatever equivalent condescension, THAT is what pisses folks off. In fact, enrage is likely more accurate.
For example, if you’ve never had people consistently assume you are the nanny when you are taking care of your own children (because hey, sometimes your kids look white-ish), then don’t tell me it was an honest mistake and that I’m just making things up or just looking for things to get mad about.
If you’ve never had people (white dudes, especially) repeatedly come up to you saying, “Gung hay fat choy!” or “Wo ai ni!” when it is neither Chinese New Year, nor are they your family or friend or loved one, then, don’t say I’m too sensitive and should be happy people are trying to speak my language.
If you’ve never had strangers ask, “Where are you from? No, before that. No, before that. No, where are your parents from? No, before that.” Don’t fucking tell me that they just want my credit history or are trying to make conversation.
If you’ve never had people ask you if you’re the company owner’s girlfriend because otherwise, how would you be the president of the company, or you’ve never had someone assume you’re the secretary instead of the financial advisor because hey, you’re a woman, then don’t tell me I should be flattered or make some joke about hot secretaries.
So when we tell you that this is our daily experience or even our sometime experience, please, do us all a favor and SHUT UP. And LISTEN. Don’t interject how it’s just like that one time you experienced. Maybe it is. (Most likely it isn’t.) But really, that’s just being kinda douchey.
LISTEN. REALLY LISTEN.
This is why it’s so important to have friends who are different than you are. Sure, it’s nice to be in your own comfort zone with people just like you, but you know what? That discomfort you feel when you’re the only white person or only man in a room? That’s how people of color or women feel all the fucking time. Somehow, we make do.
General obliviousness can only be excused so many times before it’s tired and annoying and a crutch.
Look, I’m not immune just because I’m a woman of color. I come across my privilege and ignorance quite often. But I only come across it when I have contact with people who are different than me. And when these thoughts and realizations come up, I try to examine why I hold onto them and let them go. (Sometimes, unsuccessfully.)
For example, recently (and I mean, within the last few months), I realized, “Oh, black people can baby wear or blog or knit or use cloth diapers.” When I say it out loud, it’s embarrassing. I mean, no fucking shit, genius! Why wouldn’t black people do these things? Just because I hadn’t seen it before doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. (ETA: The irony is that I just remembered that both the woman who taught me how to knit and the owners of the two yarn stores I used to frequent were both black women. This tells you a lot about how I selectively recall memories to fit my narrative and how I see the world.)
It doesn’t make me a bad person. Ignorant. Kinda silly, but ultimately, who cares? It happened. I realized I was wrong. I moved on.
Same thing with privilege. Having it doesn’t make you a bad person. Acknowledging that FACT doesn’t make you lazy or stupid or undeserving. It just makes you human. And just maybe, it makes us think that people who are not privileged are human, too.
Author’s Note: Clearly, this is a huge topic and I don’t have the time or energy to get more into detail. If you would like more information, I highly recommend Google. It would be nice and awesome if I provided a bunch of handy links and books and sites on privilege and race and gender, etc. But hey, we’re all grown ups and know how to use the internet.