I understand why some people have trouble accepting the idea of privilege when one identifies class as the primary indicator of privilege. I often hear discussions of privilege in terms of the haves and have nots. I understand how it doesn’t make sense to some people how they could be considered privileged when their mothers were on Food Stamps and they lived in a trailer park and their father was in jail and they didn’t get to go to college, etc.
Shedding the stigma of the weird kid, the nerdy kid, the poor kid- the [insert negative adjective] kid takes hard work. So it can feel like a dismissal when someone comes around and is like, “Yo, you ain’t got money to feed your kids, but you’re privileged.” It feels insulting.
Personally, I have always felt very privileged. I first learned about the differences between black kids and white kids in my second foster home in a small town in Montana. Like, as a 7 year old, I was called a n-word lover, because I hung out with my foster brother and sister, who were the only black kids in town. It was devastating for already devastated children to experience firsthand the different ways townspeople would treat us. If we were going to write an equation, being a white foster kid in Montana was better than being a black foster kid in Montana. And I was so clueless and naive that one day I had to ask my foster sister why people said such weird things to her and she started crying and said, “It’s because I’m black, ok.” She was 8 years old. I also find it interesting that in telling this story, I feel an urge to write, “Of course, not everyone in town was like that.” Because, white people are super sensitive. It’s true y’all – we are!
The first time I left my paralegal job, my boss and I were conducting replacement interviews. I wanted to hire a young, African-American lady. For some completely inexplicable reason, he went with a white lady who had a nervous breakdown and left him SOL two weeks later. In my gut, I know that my pick was not chosen because she was black. For obvious, and yet subconscious reasons, my boss chose an unqualified candidate because he felt more familiar with her.
This job I was finding the replacement for was the job that took me off the streets and into my own lease. I had absolutely no experience in an office when I was hired. I typed well and somehow made my time at Taco Bell sound impressive. If I was black, I would not have gotten that job and the idea of not getting that job and not getting off the streets and never going back to school and not going to China – I mean, these biases have long-term enormous effects.
And, acknowledging and understanding that doesn’t diminish anything I accomplished – which, in this case, is never being late on my rent. However, understanding that does open up an avenue to discuss things and be aware of them. One of the problems with discussing racism and class is people still think about it as racism or class. And people rarely have the vocabulary to discuss it in a way that empowers them, because everyone is scared to mess up. But you just have to start somewhere because the world is going to hell unless some people like you start acting brave and just acknowledge that maybe things aren’t ok.
I would encourage those whose gut reactions to privilege are disgust and rejection to revisit Peggy McIntosh’s 1970’s paper, “Unpacking the Invisible Backpack”: “…schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will.”
It’s a great read. I try to revisit it every few years, because tunnel vision is a thing. You can find it here: https://www.uakron.edu/dotAsset/1662103.pdf