Let’s Talk About Privilege

A Few Disclaimers: As a middle-class white woman, I am well aware that I am not the best person to discuss privilege. I go back and forth constantly on how much to speak out about these issues. But over the past few years, I have continuously heard people of color say things like, “White people are only going to listen to other white people, so those of you who consider yourself allies need to speak to your white friends.” With that being said, the target audience of this post is middle or upper class white people. I hope other people read it and provide any feedback they think is important, but I know that non-white people, low-income people, etc., do not need to be educated on or informed about these issues.

It’s also worth noting that the majority of this post will focus on privilege as it relates to race or class, because that is what I have spent the most time educating myself about as it most relates to my professional endeavors. It also will probably allude to gender at times, because I have some personal experience with that as a woman (though nowhere near what non-white women, non-cis people, etc., face). I am well aware that a lot of other forms of privilege exists, as it relates to sexuality, religion, nationality, and a variety of other factors. And while I may touch on those things, they are just not what I know the most about, but I don’t mean to trivialize them. A lot of this may also focus on the field of education, because that is my area of work and study, but again, I know these are issues that permeate all areas of society.

Furthermore, I live in the United States, so a lot of the links within this post will focus on US policies and laws. However, I feel the overall message of what I have to say can be applicable to just about any country.

Lastly, while I enjoy posting on Medium for a lot of reasons, the one thing I don’t like is the links don’t change colors. Please pay special attention to the bolded and underlined words as they contained links that will provide research and facts related to the things I discuss in this post.

Now gather ‘round, fellow middle-class white people…

I grew up about 30 minutes outside of Washington, DC. I’d say my family was middle-class. My dad made decent money but also didn’t have a job for several years post-9/11. We couldn’t spend extravagantly, but I always had what I needed and a lot of what I wanted. My parents instilled a hard work ethic in me, I was the first of my friends to get a job and things of that sort, but I think that was more for the sake of teaching me to work hard and not because I “needed” to work. My money went to whatever I wanted (which, as a teenager, was mostly gas for my car and alcohol for parties); I was never expected to contribute anything to my family.

I went to a pretty diverse high school. If I had to estimate, I’d say my school was probably about 50% White, 40% Black, 5% Latinx, and 5% Asian. The school’s feeder pattern pulled from both trailer parks and $500k+ homes. I grew up entirely unaware of any privilege I may have had. I just went about my business (I wrote a little bit about my personal high school experience here.) When I applied to colleges, I remember being really annoyed that there were scholarships specifically geared toward minority students or low-income students. My parents and I would complain about the fact that, with my grades, if I weren’t white, or if my dad made a little less money, I would qualify for so many scholarships or at the very least federal financial aid. In my mind, I couldn’t help that I was born white and middle class — why should I have fewer “opportunities” available to me when it came to college? As I grew older, I realized this view was very far from the truth, but I also realized that some people never escape this mentality, and many of my peers still feel that they have FEWER opportunities due to their privileged status.

In some ways, I can’t entirely blame them. It is REALLY hard to recognize your own privilege. We are all, for the most part, just doing our best in life, working hard with the hand we’ve been dealt. We don’t want to feel like anything we have or earned is some result of advantages society gave us. Our immediate reaction is to either get defensive, or to just not even believe what we are hearing. I remember the first time I heard a coworker say that the government played a role in keeping some neighborhoods poor and the creation of “ghettos.” My first instinct, despite the fact that I really respected this woman and felt she was one of the smartest people I knew, was to think, “Well that’s quite a conspiracy theory!” As someone who grew up white and middle class, I was never taught that the government was there to do anything but help me. It was genuinely not believable to me that this kind of thing would be possible. But if you do even just a minor bit of research, you can easily learn more about this kind of thing.

The problem is, many of us don’t go far enough into the research because it is REALLY hard to have our beliefs, our views about ourselves and our own life courses, and our overall worldview challenged in such a serious way. I will say it again, it is REALLY hard to recognize your own privilege. (Obviously nowhere near as hard as living without it, but again, the target audience of this post is specific.) It is still a process I am undergoing on a constant basis. I try to learn more when I can, and become more intersectional in my thinking with time, but I still have a long way to go. Despite having a long way to go, when I talk about this with fellow middle or upper class white people, there are usually some standard responses I get, and I want to take a minute to address them.

“I don’t have privilege because [insert struggle I’ve gone through]”

Having privilege does not mean that you haven’t gone through any struggles in life. You can still be a member of a privileged group while having a challenging life as an individual. But your individual struggles, while potentially horrible, aren’t a product of society being structured in a way to make things more challenging for you.

My father grew up poor…like, really poor. Like, five kids had to take turns deciding who would bathe first because they could only fill the bathtub once and they would just have to re-use the same bathtub poor. The fact that he “made it out” so to speak, and created a nice, middle-class existence for himself, is a testament to many great qualities about him — being hardworking, pragmatic, naturally intelligent, among other things. However, my dad is a white man. Society is not built in any way that makes things difficult for him. How much harder would it have been for him to chart his life path if he had a black sounding name” (an issue that isn’t confined to the United States). What if he had been a woman trying to entire the tech field, instead of a man? Or, more specifically, a woman of color?

This isn’t to say that my dad had it easy; he didn’t, and many people (including some of his siblings) that grew up in his situation would not have fared so well. This is only to say that the privilege of being a white man means that he didn’t have any additional roadblocks in his way, on top of growing up in poverty. It doesn’t make his accomplishments any less impressive, it just means that being who he was, he automatically fit the image of the lifestyle he was trying to create for himself. He didn’t have to do any extra convincing of the world at large, he just had to stay motivated and work really hard and encounter a bit of good luck along the way. Meanwhile, I’ve worked with Black students who are afraid to wear their hair natural to job interviews, Muslim students who are afraid to cover their hair for theirs, and so on.

Well, people wouldn’t get in trouble [by school, by police, by whomever] if they weren’t doing anything wrong!

This one is really popular, and really misguided. There are a million directions I could go in with this, but in an effort to keep it concise, I’ll just share a few facts.

The fact is, we all do things wrong. But certain neighborhoods are more heavily policed, certain kids are more heavily watched, certain people are pulled over while driving more than others. We have a privilege as white and middle class people of being given the benefit of the doubt more often than not. When I think about this, I often think of a group of friends and I at “Senior Week” at a beach about three hours from where I grew up. After high school graduation, kids would rent hotels and condos and stay at the beach for a week. Even though the legal drinking age is 21 in the United States, and everyone at Senior Week is 17 or 18, drinking is the main theme of the week. During our senior week, my friends and I were drinking one night and we decided to go skinny dipping. We stripped off our clothes and wrapped ourselves in towels and went downstairs. We thought because we were far back from the main strip, on the Bay side instead of the Ocean side, we would be safe from anyone seeing us. But as soon as we got downstairs, we saw police and started to run but they stopped us. They asked us about what we were doing, and they asked us if we had been drinking. We stood there, naked except for our towels, and said no (they had to have known we were), and one friend even offered for them to take a look in our condo if they wanted to check. (Thankfully they didn’t take us up on that offer because there was alcohol EVERYWHERE). They said no, that wouldn’t be necessary, and told us they had gotten called out for complaints of a different party so they’d be patrolling the area for some of the night so to be careful. Only one person in our group was Black, the rest of us were White. I think a lot about how that situation would have gone if it had been the other way around. I think they would have gone upstairs, and found the alcohol. I think the group would have been given an underage drinking charge, at best, if not a public indecency charge. But we were let go, and given a heads up of future upcoming police activity so we could keep ourselves out of trouble. That’s not to say that nothing ever happened to White kids on senior week (one White friend got an underage drinking charge that week for carrying a case of beer down the street wearing his graduation shirt with our graduation year on it, which makes me laugh every time I think of it). But, in a lot of situations, we are given the benefit of the doubt. The “Criming While White” hashtag that exploded last year tells other, similar stories.

All lives matter/we all have problems that need to be solved/only talking about specific groups divides us

I don’t even know where to start with this. If you can’t understand that saying that Black Lives Matter has an implicit “too” on the end, and doesn’t imply that anyone else’s life matters less, then you are lacking a basic understanding of the English language and I can’t help you. If you haven’t taken any time to do any research about what Black Lives Matter as a movement is and believes, or what they want, or why they’re not a hate group, you just aren’t using Google enough.

As far as the idea that only talking about one group will continue to divide us, this is just blatantly untrue. Or rather, it is only true because we let it be true. We as humans are complex beings, gifted with the ability to multitask. I can care about issues facing minorities while still recognize that I, too, face some difficulties for being a woman. Focusing on issues faced by others doesn’t make my issues any less real or less serious — but it does mean that other people face things on a more constant basis, that are even more detrimental to their well-being. By ignoring specific issues faced by specific groups, we allow these issues to continue in our society.

I could really go on about this forever, but I think it is best summed up with the famous Audre Lorde quote, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”

We all struggle. We all have shackles to some degree. But only focusing on how to remove our own, while ignoring those placed on others, only holds us all back.

I shouldn’t be responsible for people being born into different situations, they just have to work harder! Look at [random famous person who made it out of a tough situation] — clearly it can be done!

Obviously everyone should always work as hard as they can. And yes, there are some people who “game the system.” But the reality is, that is not the norm. In fact, it’s so rare, that policies that even might sound like a good idea from the start, such as drug testing welfare recipients, cost the taxpayer a bunch of money and produce no positive effect.

So for the most part, people are working hard, but the fact is, it is really expensive to be poor. And those of us who grew up with privilege have an easier time sailing through unexpected hard times.

For example, when I went through an unexpected breakup, I encountered some financial challenges. I didn’t have any savings, and I had to suddenly move into my own apartment (and pay all the security deposits and fees that go along with that), buy some new furniture, and start paying all my own bills as opposed to splitting them with another person. I got approved for a $12,000 line of credit without any issue, despite not making all that much money, because I have a great credit history. My mom co-applied for my first credit card with me years ago so I could start to build credit. During college, my parents paid most of my bills — I worked throughout college to pay for anything social or travel-related I wanted to do, but my parents paid my rent, the tuition that my scholarship didn’t cover, most of my groceries, etc. All this time, I was building up a history of paying credit cards on time, even though I wasn’t the one paying for them. I eventually paid the line of credit off, but I will now always have access to those emergency funds. When I applied for my apartment, the landlord said I had one of the best credit scores to ever apply in the complex, and he worked with me on move-in dates, allowable pets, and other issues, because my credit score indicated I’d be a good renter. This summer, when I had to pay out-of-pocket for some summer classes because I don’t qualify for summer financial aid but didn’t want to re-draw from my line of credit, I got approved for a $10,000 bank loan with no problem, with the lowest interest rate my bank offers on loans.

I say all that to say, I encountered some hard times, but because I lead a fairly privileged upbringing, I was able to work things out on my own without much difficulty and without even needing to ask my family for help. But what about people whose parents can’t co-apply for their first credit card with them? What about people paying for everything at college by themselves, putting a lot of stuff on credit cards that they can’t pay off each month? What about people working 40+ hours a week who are still slowly chipping away at their credit score to go to school, or to raise a child, that wouldn’t be able to stroll into a bank and get any type of loan they needed just because they hit a rough patch? A lot of people in my situation may have had to apply for some type of public assistance to get themselves through their temporary hard times. Does this make them any less successful of people? No. It just means they didn’t have the extra boost early on in life that I did, that allowed me to be fully self-sufficient now.

On a similar note, I had an argument recently with a friend who was arguing that more people from low-income backgrounds should enroll in some type of short-term coding course or something that would set them up for a career in computer science/business analytics/etc. I was arguing that in order to get low-income people on board with that, you would have to offer some type of stipend or some type of guaranteed job with a company upon completion, because people from certain backgrounds can’t take that kind of risk to quit their job and enroll in a course without a for-sure payoff. She said that the ability to enter such a lucrative field was payoff enough, and that no one got anywhere in life without taking a risk, and alluded to the fact that the lack of willingness to take a risk is what kept certain people from achieving certain things in life. And while I understand where this person was coming from, and I do agree that a certain amount of risk is sometimes needed when making a big career move, the fact is that some people can literally not afford to take such a risk. This person has taken a lot of career risk in their life (as have I), but they have never done so in the absence of the knowledge that if it ever really came down to it, they had a safety net to fall back on in the form of friends and family who were willing and able to help them. No matter what happens to this friend, they are never going to starve or end up homeless. Neither am I, and neither are most people I know. Our friends and families will not let that happen, and the levels of professional experience and education we have already been able to amass would let us eventually get back on our feet even during temporary hard times. But there are people who will never be able to justify a risk that could leave them without a job or without a home. It makes far more sense to stay in a mediocre, semi-secure job that allows them to barely scrape by, as opposed to making a major move that probably will be great but could leave them with nothing. I don’t think any of us who have never had to completely do it on our own, without even the option of falling back on someone in the event of an extreme emergency (even if it just the idea that there is someone you could live with if you ever lost your home), can judge the choices of people who have literally no fallback option as we truly do not, and probably will not ever, know what that feels like.

I could go on and on about the people I have encountered in low-income communities who are doing their absolute best. I could fill an entire book with stories of the things I saw when I used to have to do home visits in a low-income area to make sure children were attending school. I could talk about how bilingual students who are known to speak Spanish in the home, even if they are fully fluent in English, are placed in an English as a Second Language (ESL) track in school because schools get more money from the federal government for those students, thus getting denied an education that most challenges them and matches their abilities. I could talk about girls who are pregnant by men who are abusing them, but are coming to their alternative school (with their abusive boyfriend) to try to at least finish their high school diploma. I could talk about girls who already have one child, and who are dealing with the fallout of a relationship with a gang member, filing orders of protection in between trying to fit two years worth of online classes into one to graduate before they aged out of high school (this graduation day meant more to me than my own.) I could talk about parents who are doing their absolute best with their children, who are present and involved, who sign them up for formal mentoring programs to give them even more contact with positive role models, but whose kids have to be picked up from school for threatening suicide, due to a combination of a learning disability and struggling more than expected in high school. I could talk about kids who actually attempt suicide and have to stay in a residential facility for awhile, and whose parents really try their best to help them but due to a cultural aversion to therapy and medication, don’t have a lot of peers they can go to for advice or help.

I could talk forever about these stories, but the fact of the matter is, most people are working as hard as they possibly can. The stories you see about the people abusing the system, or trying to avoid work, they just aren’t what happens on a regular basis. Anyone who has spent any time in these communities knows that. But most people have no reason to spend time there, no reason to get to know these people, so instead of doing research, we fall back on the easier method of just believing people aren’t working hard enough. Because, it’s easier to believe that people are to blame, than to believe that living in concentrated poverty has a huge impact on people, no matter how “hard they’re working.” Or that being exposed to poverty and violence can have major impacts on children’s educational success. Even with the group of adults that do use the system in unfair ways, we still have an obligation to help their children try to break themselves out of that cycle, because that is the only way things will ever change. And pretending these issues aren’t real, and pointing to some success story as proof that it “can be done” does everyone a disservice. The people who make it out, while amazing stories, are the exception and not the rule. We need to work to make it the other way around.

We don’t want to believe that the situations people were born into set them up to be less successful, because we don’t want to believe that our situations, as opposed to our hard work and talent, had anything to do with our success. But the fact is, they just do.

You have white guilt

I don’t have any guilt for the situation I was born into. I can’t help it anymore than anyone else can. What I WOULD feel guilty about, is if I didn’t use my position of relative privilege to try to call attention to these issues and help others.

Now here are a few things privilege DOESN’T mean

  • It doesn’t mean you didn’t work hard or your accomplishments are less worthy … As an example, I am in the process of completing a doctorate degree. You better believe that my privilege is not going to take ANYTHING away from what an accomplishment this is going to be when it’s over. I worked HARD and have a lot of hard work ahead. I gave up fun things during my masters and doctorate programs for the sake of school. I worked full time while doing both. I paid for both myself (with the help of way too many loans that I feel I may never pay off). I’m among the first generation in my family to go to college at all, and the first person in my family to go beyond a bachelor’s degree. Me being white and middle class doesn’t make this any less of an accomplishment. But I can still recognize that many people had to overcome even more obstacles to get to the same place I will be getting to. That doesn’t trivialize my hard work, but it does make theirs even more commendable. Highlighting others’ struggles does not take away from your personal accomplishments.
  • It doesn’t mean you have nothing to offer in conversations or professional settings ….a lot of middle class white people seem to think that by amplifying the voices of others, we are drowning out their own voices and this is simply not the case. We all have something to offer. For a few years, I worked at an HBCU (Historically Black College or University). When I ended up having to teach a couple classes as part of my job, I was a little nervous. I thought the students would think, “What is this white lady doing teaching at our school?” This fear was amplified by the fact that one class I taught was for students on academic probation. In many ways, I was part of their last chance to stay in school, and I didn’t think they’d trust me to help them with that. And while it may have taken them a little longer to trust me, this fear was overall incredibly unfounded. Feedback I consistently got on teacher evaluations was “You can tell she really cares about us and wants us to do well.” Students would recommend me to their friends because they knew that I would really do everything in my power to assist them. Being White, or being from a certain amount of privilege backgrounds, might mean you have to work a little harder to be trusted in certain spaces, but ultimately your ACTIONS are what matter. If you are a good person, people will care what you have to say.
  • It doesn’t mean people are “coming for your jobs”…or your social status ….I don’t feel like any comment is necessary here.
  • To reiterate, it doesn’t mean you didn’t overcome struggles or that everything has been easy for you personally.

Things to Watch/Read/Listen To

I truly believe nothing will change until we commit to learning more about these issues. And we can’t continue to only learn about it from fellow middle-class white people. We might have to be our peers’ introduction to these topics, but eventually, you have to start hearing directly from those impacted by the structural and systemic inequalities that exist in our society.

It would be impossible to list every educational source I have benefited from. I encourage you to research on your own because that is really the only way you will ever truly learn. But, a few things and people that made me think differently about some of these issues (particularly race issues) include:

  • Podcasts hosted by people of color like The Read and Another Round
  • Specific podcast episodes that focus on these issues such as the two-part This American Life episode “The Problem We All Live With”
  • Various twitter accounts — it would be impossible to list all of them but a few good ones to start with include Deray , LeslieMac, Netta, and Brittany Packnett.
  • Shows like Blackish or Insecure
  • Books — they could be funny, like “You Can’t Touch My Hair’ by Phoebe Robinson or serious, like “Between The World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (I admittedly haven’t read this one in full yet, I’ve just read excerpts, but I own it and it is on my reading list to tackle very soon!)

Really any media you can consume that gives you a different perspective, and particularly things that weren’t made specifically with you as a middle-class white person in mind, can broaden your mind as it relates to privilege and similar issues.

The first step to learning about these issues is to try to remove your own defensiveness about your life, your struggles, and your accomplishments, and to just try your best to put yourself in another person’s shoes. So please, just try it, even just one shoe at a time.