I am a Caucasian daughter of a catholic mother and episcopal father. My parents worked hard to build a good life. Warmth, safety, security. These were all things I never thought about and can now see that I took for granted. I had a good life. I probably had a great life by most standards. Although I wouldn’t say we were wealthy, we certainly weren’t poor. We had our struggles just like everyone else, but always had the money for food and shelter over our heads. If you asked me back then, I wouldn’t have described us as privileged. Privileged people are rich, drive expensive cars, maybe own a boat, or take exotic vacations. Right? Enter my awakening.
The concept of privilege is a challenge to grasp. My mother, for example, grew up in a suburb of Washington, D.C. She is the first-born daughter of seven siblings. Her father worked for the Bell Company and her mother was a government employee. She attended catholic school for much of her life and lived in a tiny three-bedroom home. Her childhood was fraught with the progressive decline of her alcoholic mother. My mom was left to care for her siblings and miss school because of it. She struggled to pull herself out of the poverty, abuse, and despair in her home.
Two years after marrying my father, she had me. Around two years later, her 19-year-old sister gave birth to a child with Muscular Dystrophy. My mother took care of them until my cousin died at the age of 14. Most would look at my mother’s life and say it is not one of privilege. So in comparison, my life as a child was privileged but my mother’s life was not. Right?
It is a common misconception that having a life of privilege means that your life has been easy. By acknowledging privilege, it feels like we are somehow lessening our personal experience with struggle. How many times do you hear a straight, white man say, “I am building this from the ground up.” “No one gives me anything, I earn it.” That is, in fact, not what privilege means in the above context. What it means is that all of those experiences are valid, BUT you did not have institutional barriers that also weighed you down.
Right here in America, systems (education, legal, governmental, medical, etc.…) work against cohorts of people in our country. So, to build yourself from the ground up is admirable and climbing out of poverty is something to be proud of, it is not the same as being a person who is marginalized just for being born.
Take the medical community for instance. Patients fill out forms and see doctors. The information from the form helps the provider make an assessment prior to seeing the patient. Most forms include basic information such as name, date of birth, gender (m/f), address, and marital status. Simply put, filling out the aforementioned spaces without any questions popping up for you personally is a privilege.
It is agonizing to speak to the front desk about your partner or your pronouns. Is the person to whom you are about to disclose your intimate information, “friendly?” Those of us in the lgbtqia community have an intricate web of providers that someone has vetted. We don’t go to the eye doctor without checking with our safe circle.
Don’t get me started about the doctor’s offices that have billing staff that tell me, professionally, that they must have the person’s “real gender” or the claim will be denied. Since when do we care more about compensation than our patients? Isn’t it our job to fight for them? I would rather have a relationship with my patient than force them to out themselves or to check under the hood to make sure I am going to be compensated. This leads to trans and gender-nonconforming patients being fearful of seeking the care that they need. Privilege, my friends, is being able to go to the doctor and be you.
What about education? Academic research is full of statistics that reflect the school-to-prison pipeline. One only needs to look at their own public school system to see suspension and punishment disparities, arrests, unemployment, etc. White privilege is the acknowledgment that we treat brown and white-skinned children using different standards. Imagine this. Two children are growing up in low-income families, with an alcoholic mother. One child has white skin and one is brown. Both face the choice between their own education and the well-being of their younger siblings. They both struggle. However, statistics prove that brown skin children face worse consequences for absences and misconduct than their white counterparts. Privilege is fair and equal treatment, no matter the color of your skin.
After 45 years, I see the enormity of my privilege. It is an awakening. To see that privileged does not, in fact, have anything to do with fancy cars and exotic vacations. It is an awakening that I am still coming to understand. I challenge you to come to this awakening too. Recognize your privilege, whatever it may be, and use it as a force to fight for those who need it. Realize that being born just as you are, is likely a privilege in and of itself. For it is not until we can see our privilege for what it is and use it to lift others up, that real change will begin to happen.