the beauty + blindness that come with privilege

Photo Credit: Thomas Brault, Upslash
Photo Credit: Thomas Brault, Upslash

Years ago, a friend of mine, a lawyer working on a stop-and-frisk case, talked to me about privilege. He could be someone who walks the city streets carrying drugs, yet he’d never be stopped, never be given more than a passing glance, because he’s an attractive white male who doesn’t look the part. Doesn’t fit the profile. On paper he’s the poster boy of privilege–Swarthmore undergrad, Harvard Law, and skin as pale as parchment–until he holds his husband’s hand. Until they publicly embrace. Then he’s a fag, a homo, a queer, and it’s as if all the privilege he was able to enjoy before he touched another man’s hand vanished. On that day my friend reminded me to check my privilege and check it often. And while I have to endure the indignities that come with being a woman in America, I have to remember that I’m, by all appearances, a white, educated woman (even if I’m genetically nearly half black and Spanish), and I’m able to navigate spaces where many are denied trespass.

I think about this a lot, especially when I re-read old stories I’ve written where I talk about my hair as a “betrayal”, rather than a piece of my makeup worthy of pride and love. I think about this when I email friends listings of expensive apartments in Los Angeles of which I’m able to afford. Yes, I work hard for everything I have, but I have to remind myself, constantly, that it’s easier for me because for the whole of my adult life I’ve played the part of a white, Ivy-educated woman. I have to remember this when WOC speak cogently and brilliantly on the dangers of whitewashed feminism. And isn’t it tragic that we need a comic, albeit an eloquent one, to remind us of all that we take for granted–all the ways we need to make the world better for those who are unable to occupy our seats of privilege.

Over the past year I’ve been reading scores of articles that invite you to change your life. In this rarified life the word “impossible” is verboten because if they’ve achieved the unthinkable you can too. It’s smart marketing, really, the way in which these stories sell you on an idea, an alternative life you could be living if only you’d make the leap. If only you’d sell your possessions and hop on a plane. But that’s what marketing does–sells you something that’s actually not the thing you’re really buying.

What they’re selling, unbeknownst to them, is their privilege. Privilege has become the unspeakable, the ultimate taboo, because no one wants to hear that their journey to break ranks, regardless of how difficult it seemed to be, comes at lower cost than if someone else attempted the leap. No one wants to feel the guilt that comes with being born into a certain race or economic advantage because perhaps they think it reduces the brave choices they’ve made. It doesn’t, really, but the blindness that the currency built into these choices is a kind that can’t be bought by others, is dangerous.

You may weep into your yoghurt when you read this, but not everyone can wake up one morning, quit their job (and life), and travel the world. Not everyone can drape their tawny body on a beach or sit perched in front of a laptop in Phuket. If that were the case, everyone would do it. We don’t exist in binary states, and those major leaps can’t be copied by all but perhaps they’ll cause a ripple in someone’s life. Maybe those dramatic changes will inspire small, meaningful choices in others.

Photo Credit: Pexels
Photo Credit: Pexels

Two years ago I contemplated a move to Europe (I know, line forms to the left). In retrospect, this was the dumbest idea in which I’ve ever conceived, but back then I was unsettled, unhappy, and I was grasping for something big that could fill the emptiness I’d been feeling. Yet, so many people told me to just do it! I’ll figure it out! Don’t think! At first I was exuberant–why not just put the cat on a plane with a passport? And then I woke to the reality: I’ve six-figure student loan debt that has to be paid or the corporations that hold my debt will sic the dogs on me, and I’ve no doubt they’ve global bloodhounds in their arsenal. I’d no savings. The only language I knew was Spanish and Spain’s tanking economy was out of the question. I had no partner with whom to share my expenses and fears, and I owned a pet that would require nearly six months of paperwork and anxiety attacks to transport to another country. While I wanted to pursue this fantasy, real life logistical questions and concerns put me on pause, yet the whole of social media was intent on admonishing me for thinking logically. Apparently logic erodes delusional thinking.

All this empty talk reminded me of a piece Mark Manson wrote on the steaming pile of bullshit that is The Secret. He writes,

Other studies show that people who engage in “self-affirmations” and are then presented with information that threatens their affirmation (even healthy criticism or feedback) actually engage in more faulty reasoning than people who don’t use self-affirmations.10 In fact, people who indulge in delusional positive thinking ironically become downright angry when someone tries to contradict their wall of airy-fairy thoughts. The truth about their situation just becomes that much more painful to them.

Delusional positive thinking ironically generates greater closed-mindedness in people. They must always be vigilant and block out potentially negative feedback or criticism of their beliefs, even if that negative feedback is life-or-death important to their health and well-being.

I don’t have the privilege of parents who could finance my adventures or give me shelter should I falter from pursuing them. I don’t have the privilege of a debt-free existence because how was I going to scrounge up the $40K/year that was the cost of my Columbia education? Do I regret graduate school? Do I regret that I’ll likely pay loans until I’m steeped in earth? Sometimes. But what am I going to do other than deal with the hand I’ve dealt myself and take responsibility for my choices.

But still. These articles, for a time, made me feel guilty. Made me feel as if my life were lacking, that I wasn’t brave enough to make the choices these women had made. Honestly, that was my own shit. That was me realizing that I’m not these other people living their lives with the privileges they have. I’m me. This is my life. And while I can’t teach snorkeling in Borneo, I can make the leaps that feel right for me. The leaps that my privilege + my hard work can afford.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: don’t let these stories make you feel small. Don’t let my story make you feel small. You are the author of your own story. Write it. Live it. Share it with others. Try to help others with their story if you see them struggling, or if they don’t have the equipment or the means like you do.

Or at least acknowledge and feel grateful for what you have.