No one wants to feel like what they have worked hard for was simply handed to them because of who they are. You have gotten to this point in your life because of your work ethic and your determination and no one should be able to take that away from you. However, what if I told you that some parts of your identity might help you navigate aspects of your experience more seamlessly than others? The term privilege is daunting, and many feel it does not encapsulate their journey through life because the journey is not and has not ever been easy. I noticed that when people are referred to as privileged, they often take it as an insult and respond with “Well I worked hard for this! I can’t possibly be privileged”. Privilege has less to do with how hard you work but with the surrounding circumstances that enable your success while simultaneously preventing others’. Privilege is not necessarily a bad thing and there is power in acknowledging where you lie on the spectrum of privilege.
Growing up in a half Haitian and half Black American household one major principle was ingrained in me from the tender age of six years old: you are a Black girl and that means you have to work 3x harder than everyone around you. My mother explained to me that my identity as a woman and my blackness would subject me to harm that I did not deserve––or more so that no one deserves. Essentially, as a Black Woman I have to be more mindful of how I behave, what I wear, my tone of voice, and my hairstyles in order to be more palatable to white dominated society. As a six-year-old, it did not mean much to me until I reached high school and experienced exactly what my mother warned me about. This experience never changed or got any better but overtime I learned how to deal with it. As Maya Angelou once said, “and still I rise”. If we analyzed just two pieces of my identity which are female and Black, it would be evident that I face a double jeopardy or a double oppression. Racism and sexism are two major roadblocks that I have to navigate in a world that white men, Black men, and white women are exempt from. Black men are still subjected to racism and white women, sexism. However, based on their identities they are privileged in aspects that I am not. Privilege transcends sex and race, so it is important that we examine intersectionality when determining our levels of privilege.
As a person with membership to two marginalized groups, it is easy for me to fall into the trap of denying my privilege. What I look like dictates how people feel they can treat me and that makes my life way harder than it needs to be. However, there are other aspects of my identity that help me fight through these oppressive structures. For example, I was born into a two-parent household, my parents have always taken care of me, and I have received private school education for the majority of my life. Economic stability, educational access, and my neighborhood/built environment are all examples of privileges that I have been afforded within my life. They do not negate my experiences as a Black Woman, but they have a profound effect on the course of my life. There are aspects of our own identity that we can acknowledge make our experiences easier. Other examples that many people overlook include sexual orientation, skin complexion, physical attributes etc.
The intersectionality of our race, gender and class tells us a lot about where we are on the spectrum of privilege. It is important that we take it a step further and look at our identities from every angle. The levels of oppression that we face are based upon how much we deviate from the cis-gendered, able-bodied, Anglo-Saxon man or the white mythical norm––a phrase coined by the great Audre Lorde. Pieces of our identity can either work for us or against us or even in both ways and it’s important that we examine it all. We cannot pick and choose the aspects of our identities that we want to showcase to prove our struggle. Just how it is important for white people to understand their privilege over Black and Brown communities to prevent further perpetuation of racial inequity, it is also important for marginalized people to understand their own oppression as well as identities they have that can be oppressive to other groups of people. Acknowledging where we “rank” in terms of being oppressed or oppressive because of our identity, can potentially protect the most downtrodden members of our community. This is through highlighting the fact that others can still struggle more than us without the erasure of our own real struggles.
So why does any of this matter? Who cares if I’m oppressed in one way but not in another?
It’s unfair to expect others to acknowledge your plight and appreciate your journey if you are not willing to acknowledge theirs. As a 22-year-old Black Woman, I want people to know how hard it was for me to enter medical school based on my identities. Not for pity but for acknowledgement because my ancestors were not given the right to higher education. Due to structural inequity and systematic racism, my matriculation into medical school will always be far more difficult than that of a well to do white man’s and this is clear because Black women only make up 2% of U.S physicians. My goal is to uplift Black and brown communities but more specifically Black women. If I ignored the fact that my education and social environment cultivated a space for me to grow as a student and excel, I would be ignoring the hardships of other students–specifically students of a lower social economic status––that were not presented with the same opportunities. In turn, this minimizes their experience and undermines my overall goal. This also speaks to the idea that individuals can unintentionally take on the oppressor role for those that experience a greater level of oppression or a lesser level of privilege when they ignore their own level of privilege. Through becoming an oppressor, none of the change or impact I would like to have will be effective. I would essentially be uplifting the status quo by ignoring those that fall at the disadvantaged end of the privilege spectrum.
As one moves away from this idea of the white social norm they are subjected to varying degrees of inequity, injustice, and discrimination. There is a broad spectrum between the white norm and “other”. The closer you are to being the “other” the further you are from attaining the privilege associated with the white social norm. Understanding where you lie on that spectrum is important for internalizing and analyzing your own personal experience with oppression. It provides individuals with the capacity to identify how those that differ from them may have an entirely different but valid experience. Through uplifting these different experiences, we are fighting for something bigger than ourselves but true equity.
Use your privilege to bring those around you higher. There is no need to compete in this space… we have all had it hard to some degree so why not make things easier for those that come after us?