Admitting You Have Privilege Doesn’t Make You a Bad Person

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.

Beauty Before Pain and Other Lies

The other day, several of my friends and I were lamenting about our mothers (and to be fair, our fathers and society has certainly contributed to the conversation) and the fucked up things they say to our daughters about beauty (and I’m sure, our sons as well, but we are super sensitive about our daughters). I don’t know why we’re so surprised that our mothers say these things – after all, I grew up hearing them all the time. I’m sure this isn’t something only Chinese mothers do, but since I have only had a Chinese mother and am a Chinese mother, that is my main frame of reference.

Even though there were so many obvious lies my mother told me, I didn’t even realize how fully I absorbed them into my psyche until the last ten years or so. (Not with the intention of lying to me, I understand. It’s only because she believes these lies and thinks they are true. Also, it’s because she happens to have some of the characteristics she considers beautiful and for some reason, she can’t wrap her mind around the possibility that someone she birthed would have different features. I swear she is a loving and good mother.)

For instance, I have always been sad that my feet were a size 8. My mother always commented about how my feet were so large and too big for my height. (She wears a size 6.) She said it so much and made me so self-conscious about it that for the longest time, I refused to buy sneakers because I thought they were too bulky and made my feet look even larger. And since sometimes, I could fit into size 7.5, I would often buy size 7.5 shoes out of total vanity but then not wear the shoes because they hurt like a bitch because, oh, hey! THEY WERE TOO SMALL. Then, I’d have to either not wear the shoes at all and waste my money or go back and return the shoes (which is a tough one if they’ve already been worn).

I think it wasn’t until maybe seven or eight years ago when I was returning a pair of gorgeous red pumps that I finally realized how stupid me trying to fit in a smaller size shoe was. Who the fuck cares whether my shoe size was 7.5 or 8? What really matters is wearing shoes that FIT. You know, because walking without pain is a good thing. So when my shoe size increased to 8.5/9 after being pregnant with Cookie Monster, the only reason I was upset about that was because I no longer fit in my awesome red heels. Once I stop pumping out babies and my shoe size doesn’t increase anymore, I’ll go back to buying hot shoes. You know, for all my hot play dates.

It wasn’t only shoe size that I was hung up on. I also would occasionally buy skirts or dresses that were a size down instead of my true size. Which of course, I could only wear comfortably before eating anything and then I’d be constricted or practically bisected after lunch so OF COURSE, I wouldn’t wear these clothes ever again, either. Another total waste of money.

I even suffered through having an engagement and wedding ring that were a size too small (and constantly stuck on my fingers and too tight) because I thought my fingers were too thick. It wasn’t until after I had Cookie Monster that I decided I was ridiculous and re-sized my rings.

Funny enough, it wasn’t until I started watching What Not To Wear that I realized my obsession with a particular size was so stupid. That didn’t change REALITY. Whatever my size was, that was my size. There is no value judgment about my feet or my body. It just was. Once I got over that and started buying shoes and clothes that actually fit, I stopped wasting money and being incredibly uncomfortable.

Another random thing I didn’t like about my body (again, due to my mother’s comments) were my fingernails. My mom has these long, tapered fingers with nice, long nails. My fingers are not quite as long and my nails certainly are not long. In fact, no matter how much I tried when I was younger, my nails never seemed to get long enough. It wasn’t until I had Glow Worm (yes, you read that right) and I saw that his nail beds were so close to the tips of his fingers that if his nails grew just one millimeter, it seemed as if he had nice, long nails that I realized it had nothing to do with my failure to grow nails and everything to do with genetics. My nail beds were further back. I would have to grow my nails at least double the length my mom or Glow Worm did to achieve the same look.

Did I just go off on a super long post about feet and nails? YES. Yes, I did. Why? Because holy crap, the stupid shit we absorb about beauty from our mothers and fathers and television and society really fuck us up. And all about incredibly stupid, meaningless things.

Anyhow, there are all sorts of articles about how we shouldn’t only comment on girls’ outward appearance such as what they are wearing or how they look, but quite frankly, I totally fail at this. And not only with my daughter. I fail at this with my sons. I am constantly telling them they are cute or pretty (equal opportunity comments on pretty girls and boys for me) or beautiful. Of course, I also tell them they are funny, silly, smart, kind, and wonderful, but that may be because I am a little bit biased.

At any rate, I’m sure I’m warping my children with an unnatural shallowness and obsession with their looks (like mother like child, I suppose). So, for our collective amusement (because if you can’t laugh at the utter fucked-uppedness of the following list, you will weep), here are some gems about beauty, straight from the mouths of our mothers:

Stay out of the sun because lighter skin is better. (Somewhat racist, but mostly classist because only peasants who worked in the fields have dark skin.) (Also, I am a stickler for sunblock and sunshirts and hats not because dark skin makes my kids ugly, but because skin cancer is bad.)

Stop furrowing your brow; you’ll get wrinkles. (My mother says this every now and then to Gamera. It’s annoying.)

Big eyes (especially with the double lid) are pretty.

Taller noses with a high bridge are pretty.

Dark, black eyes and hair are prettier than lighter brown eyes and hair.

Being thin is prettier. Being fat makes you look older.

Shaving your head makes you look sick and like you’re dying. Also, it makes you look fat. (Confer previous lie.) (My mother refused to talk to my brother all weekend one summer after I shaved his head. She was pretty pissed at me, too. She was convinced that my brother was having problems and feeling insecure and that’s why he shaved his head.)

If you don’t eat your vegetables, you won’t be pretty.

If you cry, you won’t be pretty. (My friend’s 2.5 year old daughter heard her grandmother say this to her and started to cry. Her mother proceeded to say, “You’re turning ugly!” What made my friend super pissed is that her daughter actually stopped crying.)

Another friend’s dad told her daughter not to run with a stick because if she poked an eye out she wouldn’t be pretty anymore. Forget the fact that she would ONLY HAVE ONE EYE.

GAH. I think I have to stop before I get mad. Or cry. Either way, I won’t be pretty.