A few months ago I was trying to edit something on one of College Possible’s databases. For whatever reason, the system wasn’t letting me save and a pop-up message appeared saying “Cannot save: insufficient privileges.” I immediately wheeled over to my cubicle neighbor and said “Insufficient privileges? I’m a straight white male!”
Knowing how to talk about privilege, especially white privilege, is something that I still feel like I have no idea how to do, although here I am giving it a shot. When it comes to privilege, I’ve been exceedingly and disgustingly lucky. I identify as male, white, and straight and have never actually questioned my identity in any of those aspects. To add on to that, I come from an upper-middle class background and am the third generation in my family to graduate college. And in recent years I have realized just how damn unfair all of it is. If I wanted to, I could turn a blind eye to issues like LGBTQ rights, women’s reproductive health, the Black Lives Matter campaign, and countless other social movements. None of those issues directly affects me. If all of those issues were to be swept under the rug, then I could continue living my life as I always have and be none the wiser. Of course I’m exaggerating, but the principle remains the same. It’s not fair of me to even have the ability to ignore the issues. The reality is that I am very passionate about all of those movements, thankfully, but the problem comes when people don’t understand why these movements even exist in the first place.
Since the human experience is completely subjective, it’s easy for people to say that since they were able to succeed, then others should be able to succeed just as easily. But that’s the point: no one has the same experience. It’s only been in the past year or so that I’ve realized that the best way for me to deal with privilege – here I am talking about it like it’s a burden – is to acknowledge that I have absolutely no idea what another person is going through. I am pro-choice because I am never going to be pregnant and will never in the slightest be able to imagine what it’s like to make the decision to go through with a pregnancy or not. I support gay marriage because I will never know what it’s like to not be able to marry the person I love. I support the Black Lives Matter movement because I will never know what it’s like to be discriminated against on job applications based on my name, pulled over because I “look suspicious,” or have an entire group in white robes try to take away my rights as an American citizen. It is my opinion that people in my position need to learn to acknowledge that they don’t understand everything about life, because the simple fact is that no one truly does. The American Dream is chased by everyone, and it’s always having the big house with lots of money and having everything you want. But if you’re born into a rich, powerful family you’re already at that point, and it’s no secret that minorities tend to make up a disproportionate chunk of the poor population in this country.
Get ready for another College Possible reference. My experiences with the organization have of course opened my eyes further to the issue of privilege, and my last post shows just how stark the contrast is between the life that I have led and the lives led by my students. Five of my 165 students are white. College Possible reaches out to those who need the most help, and what my cohort demographics tell me is that minorities are the ones in need of the most help. I directly interact with the issue of privilege on a daily basis, and it’s difficult to know exactly what my place in this interaction should be. I come from a culture where going to college is a given. I knew I was going to college for as long as I can remember and so did most of my friends. One thing I have noticed more of recently is the kind of culture that most of our students come from basically discourages going to college.
I have a Latino roommate who also works for College Possible, and we have had lots of conversations about where he came from and what it was like for him going to college and being the first to graduate. His family is from Mexico and Honduras and there is a pretty substantial Latino population where he grew up, and from what he has told me it was never assumed that he would go to college at all, because that’s the kind of culture he grew up in. I have found something similar here in Milwaukee. We are currently recruiting sophomores to start our program next year in the high schools, and one of the schools I am working with is almost completely Latino. We had a couple of people going and getting sophomores to come and sign up for the information sessions, and one noticed a freshman student he had seen sitting with some sophomores. The student was asked if his friends would come sign up, and the student explained that they were saying “Mexicans don’t go to college.” That really threw me for a loop. That one statement affirmed everything my roommate had told me, and it was in a completely different part of the United States. Going to college and being successful is something that is seen almost exclusively as “white,” another thing that’s been emphasized by my roommate. While I don’t have any anecdotes about how the black population might view college, my guess is that as a historically oppressed group it would probably be along the same lines.
This was a hard post. I said a lot of things that I could ultimately be completely wrong about. I realized that I have no idea how to talk about privilege in a truly productive way and that I basically just word-vomited all of this. It’s definitely a process, and I think that I have been getting better about being open and acknowledging the advantages that I have had in my life and taking part in discussions about it, even with high school students in our program. This is another way for me to do that. It’s an uncomfortable thing to talk about, and we need to get over that in order to ultimately succeed as a society, where movements like Black Lives Matter don’t have to exist, where differences are celebrated as well as acknowledged, where we are able to help each other based on the privileges that we do or don’t have already, and where we strive towards a culture of understanding and unity rather than bias and individualism.
That last part really was word vomit.