I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege.
Because of the horrific things that have been going on in this country, and in the world. Because I’ve recently begun the work of opening my eyes to the privilege in my own life and even in my writing. (This, I’m realizing, makes plenty of sense. What we create – whether it’s fictional or non, will inevitably be informed by who we are, and what we’ve experienced – and have not experienced.)
I’ve also been thinking more about privilege because it’s something many of us feel uncomfortable talking about, and unpacking, certainly publicly. Acknowledging my own discomfort and confusion in this post was an important step for me, a cracking open of a long-closed door. And it was not easy; pressing publish on that post ushered in a robust Truth Hangover. But this itself, this feeling of shakiness in the wake of speaking up is itself an utterly privileged phenomenon. All of this self-study/introspection/existential pondering is.
But what if doing these things gets me, and many of us, somewhere? What if looking honestly at our current selves and our current lives and our histories brings awareness of the privilege we have enjoyed (or not enjoyed), privilege that has maybe heretofore been largely, problematically unconscious? Isn’t that something?
Over the past several years, I’ve been working part-time in the Admissions Department of the school I attended K-12, the school our three daughters now attend. It has been an interesting, rewarding experience. I enjoy speaking with parents and hearing stories and anecdotes and I know and love the school, so the fit has been good. Before one school year, all members of faculty and staff at the school were required to attend a two-day Diversity Training facilitated by a downright brilliant man named Glenn Singleton. We did powerful exercises and talked about things, many of which are at the forefront of the news today – white privilege, the virtue of having courageous conversations about race, the notion that advocating for “colorblindness” in schools – and in society – is both unrealistic, and ultimately dangerous.
Those two days affected me, dislodged something. I remember sitting in my seat and feeling my heart clang in my chest. At several points, I teared up. I finished the training with the distinct and heartbreaking feeling that on the question of race and of privilege, I’d been sleepwalking. This was terminology Singleton himself used. I walked out of the school more awake, determined to do and see things differently. But then, let’s be honest, I went back to my life, my busy privileged life of raising daughters and writing words in Manhattan, and my determination got displaced by the day-to-day demands of my pretty little bubble.
And here I am again. I plan to go back and read Singleton’s words and watch his talks on YouTube. I encourage you all to do so as well. I even have this perhaps far-fetched dream of bringing him here to my home to speak to a gathering of my friends on the topic of white privilege. Maybe I will hustle and try to find a way to make this happen.
I just Googled “What is privilege?” A basic start. This is what I found: a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people. Then I came upon a 2014 article by Joshua Rothman from The New Yorker called The Origins of “Privilege” Go read it. It’s good. In it, Rothman interviews Peggy McIntosh who famously penned the paper White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack where she details 50 “Daily Effects of White Privilege.” Please read this paper, too.
Within The New Yorker article, I was linked to a BuzzFeed survey entitled “How Privileged Are You?” I was curious. I answered the questions – largely having to do with race, gender, sexuality, religion, socio-economics – and this is what popped up:
You’re the most privileged. In a bold red box. A 78. (I suspect my score would be a lot higher if I were a man.) I read the little accompanying paragraph. “This is not a bad thing, nor is it something to be ashamed of. It just means that a lot of other people in the world don’t live life with the advantages you have, and that’s something you should always be aware of.” And then there was this: “Hey, the fact that you took the time and effort to check your privilege means that you’re already trying.”
I read this final bit and smiled and felt good, but the good feeling faded fast. Yes, it’s a tiny step in the right direction to run internet searches and read articles and take quizzes, to build toward a greater sense of self-awareness of self and world, but then what? This is where I snag. I do not think it’s enough. This is where I need to do more work, where many of us need to do far more work. Once we become aware of our privilege, of all the tiny and tremendous ways we are at some kind of advantage in the world, what do we do? Yes, we read books and think deeply and write blog posts from our kitchen islands, but what else?
This is a serious question.
I’m eager to know what you think. About any of this. About the question of privilege vis-a-vis race or other identity markers. Have you been aware of the privilege – or lack thereof – in your own life? Have recent events made all of this more pressing to you? Will you take the time to do the quiz and report back what you find and/or share it with others? How privileged are you?