You don’t know what you don’t know.
And I sure as hell didn’t know anything until a few years ago.
As a member of the White middle-class, I never dealt with my own privilege simply because I did not have to. It wasn’t until my sophomore year of college when my Sociology professor explained the concept to the class. I went on the immediate defense – racked with White middle-class guilt – had I really benefited from a system I didn’t even know existed? It didn’t take long before answering with a resounding, albeit reluctant, “Yes.”
I couldn’t see my own privilege until it was shown to me, and I do not apologize for that – I can’t. Because you don’t know what you don’t know. I was perfectly content with my rose-colored glasses, that is, until someone gave me an opportunity to see the world without them.
For the last several years I have worked diligently to check my privilege. I realized that the only way I could see my privilege was to rid myself of the guilt, to get over it and focus on the matter at hand. My goal was certainly not to become an unapologetic White woman, but instead to move beyond a barrier that would keep me from thoroughly examining my own advantage.
Privilege – like many cultural phenomena – can be a difficult system to explain, and it becomes increasingly difficult to explain to those benefiting from it. My position as a White middle-class woman has given me a unique perspective on privilege, how it is discussed, and how such discussions are received. In exploring my own benefit, and that of others, I was able to see where it was lacking in my life, and the lives of those around me.
Privilege has manifested itself in many ways – some more visible than others. Race and ethnicity seem to be at the center stage of the discussion, and rightfully so, but it is important to remember that there are a multitude of other demographics affecting privilege. These other elements are deserving of attention and can be seen in citizenship, religious affiliation, socioeconomic status, education level, physical/mental ability, age, sexual orientation, gender, the list goes on.
While I have unquestionably benefited from privilege based on my race, education level, religion, and socioeconomic status, my gender is what allows me to see the topic from a different yet unforced perspective. While I may never fully grasp (my) privilege in its entirety, my aim is to educate myself and others to the best of my abilities.
Though its existence is often disputed, I can tell you as a White woman that privilege does exist:
Because historically, my hair in its natural state has never been controversial.
Because I can almost always find Band-Aids, tights, and makeup in my shade. Because my skin tone may get me teased, but it will never get me killed. Because “boys will be boys” has trumped my autonomy.
Because if my name were spelled differently, it would be “creative” or “eccentric” rather than “weird” “wrong” or “ghetto.” Because if I found myself in the “wrong” part of town someone would make sure I got home safe, rather than question my motives.
Because when I am angry, the first thing I am asked is if I am on my period. Because I feel comfortable and safe going to the police for help.
Because if I am out after dark, I am constantly looking over my shoulder. Because when I choose to speak in slang it is seen as “hip,” not “uneducated” or “ignorant.”
Because most every choice I make can somehow be tied back to my virtue, self-worth, and whether or not I meet the criteria of a “lady.”
Because if I speak Standard English no one will remark on how eloquently I speak – for a white person.
Because if I am opinionated or outspoken I can be called a bitch, bossy, or annoying – rather than a leader. Because no one will ever question whether I was placed at a job or accepted by a university in order to meet a quota based on the color of my skin.
Because I can be accused of sleeping my way to the top rather than earning what I have achieved.
Because making me feel accepted is the default, and not an afterthought.
Because someone felt it was their right to grope, grab, and whistle at me – and then became angered when I protested.
Because my race is not fetishized.
Because if I slept with someone from work I would be scowled at, gossiped about, ostracized, and slut-shamed, rather than high-fived. Because my entire culture hasn’t been reduced to an aisle in a grocery store or a misrepresented holiday.
Because there is a “W” in WNBA, but men’s basketball is referred to simply as the NBA. Because I could count all the children of color in my elementary school on two hands.
Because if I take up space it is rude and improper, not the norm.
Because people don’t wonder whether my mother is a single parent or if my father is in jail.
Because I can go shopping without being followed through the aisles or asked to empty my bag and pockets.
Because I question the guy standing too close to me in the frozen food section.
Because I have never had to worry that I will not be allowed to marry the person I love.
Because I was asked “What ever happened to marrying a doctor?” when I was discussing my career aspirations. Because my God is on money, in schools, and in law – but someone else’s is seen as a symbol of terror.
Because some people believe I am unfit to rule a country based on my gender. Because bringing a homemade lunch won’t get me teased for its smell or appearance. Because my gender is seen as weak, erratic, and emotional. Because my citizenship has never been called into question. Because my name on a résumé won’t make someone think twice about hiring me.
Because if I said I wanted to be the President, an astronaut, or in the military, my career choice would be seen as daring because of my gender – not solely based on the nature of the job. Because dancing on Hip-Hop teams for eight years made me cool, not a stereotype.
Because I am tired of being asked what I can cook or if I can sew. Because I’ll never be told that I am pretty – for a white girl.
Because not wearing makeup means I’m lazy, but wearing “too much” means I’m begging for attention or attempting to deceive people. Because if I choose to mother a child, my motherhood will never be reduced to being a “baby mama.”
Because if I wanted to have sex with someone I could be called a slut or a whore, instead of praised for following my gender’s perceived inclination.
Because I can never be described as “less-than” or “fake” White.
Because if I gather with my friends, we will not be mistaken for a gang.
Those who are not forced to recognize their own privilege are typically those who benefit from it the most. Examining privilege is not a means by which to seek out a figure for blame; examining privilege is a means by which we can examine the disparities between people, learn from these disparities, and implement change accordingly.
Whether looking in the mirror or looking at your surroundings, it is difficult to create change if you cannot see where it is needed.
Because you don’t know what you don’t know.