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Sunday, August 16, 2015

Letters to My White Family

This is the first response in a set of email communications with someone in my white family.
I'm sharing this for white friends and family who are trying to understand their own privilege and come to terms with what it means to engage respectfully in dialogue with those who are less privileged, particularly when it comes to race.
I'm not the authority, and this was the best explanation I could come to with my family.
Names and identifying details changed in the interest of privacy:


That's understandable. I think I see where our definitions diverge; it's a subtle difference. To you, lighter skin AND wealth AND social status equals a person who is "privileged".
The definition that I have come to understand and that I have heard in most social justice seminars is that a person can have privilege in just one area, or more. It doesn't make them a "privileged individual", it just means that they have unearned advantage in one or some areas of their life. That doesn't make them bad, that doesn't make them wrong, they simply have unearned advantages that some others don't (in those specific areas).
You're operating on an "identity #1 and identity #2 and identity #3= PRIVILEGE" formula ; while I operate on an "identity #1 or identity #2 or identity #3=PRIVILEGE" formula.

This is why the term "intersectionality" is so important to these discussions. In the story you just told me, you mentioned several different groups that you belong to:
1) you identify as cis
2) you identify as someone who grew up poor
3) you identify as white racially
4) and (I'm going to say because of our other discussions where you listed yourself as an ally) you identify as heterosexual.

These are just four categories of an infinite list of identities that people/you might have.
Other identities might be:
Physical capability
Native Language
Citizenship Status
Given Name
Social Connections
And the list goes on.

And having privilege in one area does not take away from the validity of your experience, nor does it take away from the validity of those single identities.
I know that you grew up in your home town and that you were the racial minority. I know that being white there is a difficult identity to have. That is valid and I'm sorry that your experience there was so shaded by other people's bias and hate.

This is where the word "privilege" can be hard for people. You're not alone; almost no one likes saying they are privileged because it usually makes people feel like a jerk.
I completely understand and empathize with the reaction "how can you call me privileged? I grew up piss poor in a family with not many educated people, went to school hungry, didn't have rich parents, and had to work hard all of my life to get by." I understand that reaction because I've reacted that exact same way myself. It's hard to acknowledge privilege because you don't want other people to discount those other valid parts of your identity. But in a truly safe, social justice oriented space, no one is asking you to do that. You can still acknowledge specific benefits to some parts of your life and still also acknowledge the struggle of the other parts. It doesn't mean you struggled any less than you did. It doesn't take away from that fight, it's just a different side of who you are.

I hated thinking about my privilege (and still often do) but not thinking about it affects people I care about in ways that are unfair* and I want to help them by changing those unfair things. The only way to change things is to first acknowledge it exists, and to acknowledge that a difference in the distribution of resources or the access to resources exists.

My friend, Meghan is a really spunky, fun individual. She likes to joke around and be active outdoors with her dog. I often bump into her while she's running errands and we usually stop to catch up. HOWEVER, Meghan has to deal with a lot more adversity than I do when it comes to accomplishing those tasks because she is in a wheelchair.

-I can get on the bus really quickly with almost no hitch.
-When Meghan boards a bus, it takes nearly ten minutes for the driver to lower the bus, unfold the wheelchair ramp, anchor her chair to the wall of the bus, fold the wheelchair ramp, and then move the bus. 
And all of this is happening amongst angry whispers and mean stares about how long she is making everything take. When really, if the system was better equipped to deal with wheelchairs, it might not take so long.
She also sometimes has to go past her stop on the subway because not all stops are accessible with an elevator.

But here's the other reason why I bring her up. She said to me once that she ABSOLUTELY can't stand when people don't pick up their dog's poop.
I'm not a fan of that either, but I didn't understand why she'd care that much.
I asked her why and she told me, 
"because when I don't see it coming, I roll my chair wheels in it, and I push my wheels with my hands."

My mind exploded. I had never even thought of the fact that if someone did something as simple as not pick up after their dog, Meghan might end up with shit on her hands, literally.

That is why we need to acknowledge privilege. Because we might be shitting on someone (maybe someone we care about) and not even know it. This is why engaging in dialogue with people who don't have the same privilege as us is important, so that we can learn how to be more self aware, more socially responsible and conscious, and more considerate.

I know I said earlier that in a truly safe, social justice space, no one is asking you to relinquish the parts of you that incurred struggle. But I also know that *finding* spaces like that can be incredibly difficult. And sometimes those spaces can feel like they are asking for you to leave parts of yourself at the door. 

Here's the thing: in some discussions, where the topic revolves around an area of your identity where you have privilege, you have to check yourself and be mindful of the fact that privilege is franchise. 
Disadvantage equals DISFRANCHISEMENT. 

Those who struggle in a particular area have less voice and are often less heard than those who have privilege in those areas.
If the discussion is about the struggles of being in a wheel chair, and someone brings up ways in which able-bodied people are not disadvantaged, that is not the time to remind everyone in the room of all the other areas in your life where you do struggle. 

It's not always about you or me. Sometimes you have to let those areas of struggle take a back seat, because they are not directly part of the issue at hand and bringing them up will only conflate and slow down the discussion of alleviating the disparity of access and privilege.

Like you and I said before, these issues are really complicated and  multidimensional so obviously this email is not an exhaustive explanation of privilege or of intersectional identities. I just hope this clarifies the groundwork that I have in regards to discussing privilege and allows us to more easily parse out its different dynamics without anyone feeling hurt or personally attacked.

This is long, so just let me know when you're finished reading.


*unfair meaning "unjust" but that seemed too lofty at the time I was writing this

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