Two things about me: I am a white, straight, cisgender man who works in technology and I grew up in a single-parent home with two sisters on welfare and food stamps. I didn’t have the easiest childhood.
I have had and continue to live, a very privileged life. Privilege and my childhood aren’t mutually exclusive. Despite anything I went through growing up, privilege was still a part of it. That doesn’t diminish what I went through and both played a role in shaping who I am today. They are integral parts of my story, shape my world view, and influence my actions. The biggest influence is how I view advocacy and more specifically advocating for others.
Hardship and advocacy from others
My mom and dad split up when I was in kindergarten. That was the last time I saw him. Before that, we lived in a trailer park, I spent some time in foster care, we moved around a lot. After they split up, we still moved around a lot, my mom never worked, we lived without a lot of things, got evicted, lived in a motel, lived with friends. I experienced the effects addiction has on a person and their family.
That might seem like too much information, but I hope it gives you a view of my childhood. Things weren’t always great or healthy, but I made it through. I could give credit for that to a few different things but very little had to do with anything I did. More often, it had much more to do with people in my life advocating for me.
Your ability to help or advocate for someone else isn’t dependent on your means. It’s dependent on your willingness to help and put others before yourself.
In my junior year of high school we got evicted. I stayed with a friend and his family. That eventually became home and they became family. When I go “home,” that’s where I go. When I talk about family, I’m talking about them. They didn’t have a lot, but they had enough to help me. At work, it’s been having someone vouch for me and ability as a designer, or advocate for me for an open position, or support me through a workplace issue. It’s been teachers, friends, coworkers, or sometimes people I didn’t know at all. Sometimes I asked for help and other times I didn’t. In most cases the support I received didn’t come from a place of abundance, but from someone’s willingness to use their privilege. They were willing to sacrifice time, or money, or comfort. That’s something that stuck with me: your ability to help or advocate for someone else isn’t dependent on your means. It’s dependent on your willingness to help and put others before yourself.
Hardship and privilege
It’s easy to look back at difficult times in my life and identify the people that helped me through those times. It’s not always as easy to look back at those same times and identify the privilege that I had. It’s easier to convince myself that privilege and hardship can’t exist at the same time, but that’s not how privilege works. It doesn’t mean my experiences don’t matter, but it does mean there are things outside of my control that make challenges I go through easier for me than they are for others. We aren’t all dealt the same cards. And sometimes it’s not just the cards, but the deck or the rules or the entire game that are completely different. Sometimes you have an advantage.
Embracing my advantages didn’t make me think less of what I went through; it made me think more about what other people go through. I grew up a small white kid in a predominantly white community. What if that hadn’t been the case? Because the thing is: it’s not the case for so many people. Not everyone has the same resources, or experiences the same representation, or receives the same advocacy.
That doesn’t mean someone else had a harder life so your story means less. It doesn’t mean that food stamps, or poverty, or addiction, or whatever your circumstances weren’t hard. It doesn’t mean you didn’t work hard or that things were handed to you. It does mean that you had an advantage. It means you probably benefitted from a system that makes it easier for some or harder for others. It means that privilege is a part of your story.
Using your privilege
How you tell that story is up to you. You can ignore it or try and deny it, or you can accept it. You can own it. Use it. Use it to empower the voices of the people that don’t have the same advantages. Use it at work or in your communities or schools. Use it to advocate for people who don’t look like you, for people who live in systems that don’t set them up for the same success as you. Use it so your story can impact more than just people that look like you.
For me, using my privilege has meant learning how to be a better ally at work by advocating and sponsoring others more and speaking up more about issues I see. If you’re looking for ways to start, I’d recommend listening to or reading about the experiences of people who are different from you and potentially don’t have the same privilege. If you’re looking for more specific resources, a friend shared the Guide to Allyship site with me. I’d also recommend Karen Catlin’s book, Better Allies. Since writing this, I started reading it with a few coworkers and the first chapter has been helpful in understanding privilege, better identifying the privileges I have, and learning how to make those privileges work for others.