I remember asking one of my students why he didn’t ask questions. He told me that every time he thought to ask a question, he looked around the room and remembered that he was the only black kid and he didn’t want to sound stupid if he was going to represent that large of a population. He was a brilliant student, came from a top tier high school and yet was failing his classes because he was crippled, focused entirely on dealing with being in the minority.

Privilege is truly hard to understand (although i also recommend McIntosh’ “White Privilege”) and the workings of it operate on so many different levels. Race privilege is different than gender privilege is different than sexuality privilege, but they’re impact on the marginalized can be equally intense. Let me unpack that.

First, why are privileges different? If you’re black, you’re family is most likely black. If you’re black, you can build up a social network of all black people, live in an all black community, etc. This does not alleviate the general marginalization that your community gets compared to other communities, but in many ways, you can take a breather from being constantly aware of being different. Women are primarily born into mixed male/female environments. While all female environments exist, few women want to only see women for an extended period of time. Thus, breather space is much rarer and has other odd consequences. When it comes to sexuality, queer folks are rarely born into queer families and usually have to make it well into adulthood before they can find a community of all queer folks and take a break from being “different.”

What does this mean? First, think about how hard it is to leave a safety bubble for the unknown and to struggle to be seen and validated in that space. Overcoming major obstacles. Not fun. This alone defines white privilege. Most of white America never has to leave their bubble to strive for something greater.

From youth on, girls have to continuously prove themselves in ways that are not expected from boys. This is exhausting. But the “breather” space is to do exactly what you’re supposed to do, follow the flow of currents. This means entering fields that are primarily women. Then you don’t have to validate yourself in a classroom. Because if you take the harder path, you are always fighting to be seen as something other than an affirmative action case.

Yet, the feelings of confidence are not truly there. When i was TAing an introductory CS course, i asked those dropping out what they thought their perceived grade was (we were dreadful at returning grades in a timely fashion and thus they were unknown). Boys thought their grade was 1 letter grade higher than it was; girls thought it was 1 letter grade lower. Girls were dropping out with A- and Bs, thinking they were failing. Perception.

I certainly know this feeling personally and am finally coming to my own with it. I tried to drop out of computer science every semester; my amazing advisor kept me together. I felt incompetent even though my grades said otherwise. I felt degraded, although i’m willing to admit that there were things that i did to egg that on. I continued to do what i was doing to prove that i could, long after i fell out of love with programming.

More than anything, what i realize about myself and what i realize about my successes is that they most often come when people tell me that i’m incapable of doing something; i will prove them wrong. Yet, while this rebellious attitude has gotten me through thick and thin, it’s not how i expect the world to overcome being marginalized. It doesn’t work like that. I understand that the way i work requires constant energy. Unfortunately, i don’t know what will generate large scale change that will level the playing field.

I used to think that projecting my exacerbated frustration would make people change, but it never worked for me (although i genuinely commend those who’ve made it work!). Silence is certainly not the way that i work best. Subtlety is entertaining and effective, but only at a local level. I’m still trying to learn how to create a constructive dialogue that will address these issues in a meaningful manner far beyond my reach.

This is the issue i’ve been sitting with for years and i suspect that i will sit with it for years to come.

[brought on by reflecting on Liz Lawley’s very accurate rant]

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1 thought on “privilege

  1. zarathustra

    By giving minority kids a perpetual sense of victimization, you only help create the Clarence Thomases of the world. Dowd had an interesting look at his rant on affirmative action, and I agree. The only way out is to empower these kids, and not focus on the block. I have been in the minority all my life (a powerful and well off minority granted) and do feel a sense of despair when undertaking things that my ethnic group doesnt traditionally take on. But the best path out is to stand up there and take it on. I sometimes think of my ancestors who stood up there and paved the way for me, and the best I can do is the same for those who come after me. I do not imply that there does not exist a psychological block on most of us, but I dont think creating words like white privilage, male dominated etc…help.
    Also note Eberts take on Matrix Reloaded, where he feels that the whatsthiernames brothers put black figures as the Mentor/Guru rule, because of the perception of coolness/power associated with blacks by white suburban kids.

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