My best friend texted me the other night. He was letting me know that he’d been asked to submit a micro-aggression that happened to him while at Bates College, and was picking between two things I said to him freshman year. The first was, “Wow! You just got so Black!” after watching him debate.
The other thing I told him was, “I don’t feel bad about taking mugs [from the dining hall], because my parents actually pay for me to go here.” What I really meant was that “Black” is equivalent to aggressive, and that my parents’ income means I’m more deserving of being at Bates than other students.
Those of you who know me may be surprised to hear that those words came out of my mouth. I ask those of you who don’t know me to bear with me. You see, I came from the town next to Tal Fortgang’s, the now infamous Princeton freshman who wrote the article “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege.”
My town is, if anything, whiter and richer than Tal’s. I grew up in a bubble of “the 1%,” to the point of describing my family and our neighborhood as “upper middle class” until realizing that the Occupy Wall Street protests were outside of the buildings my parents and my friends’ parents work at. I came to Bates without having a meaningful relationship with someone who was significantly different from me.
I was not overtly racist, or homophobic, or misogynistic, or classist, etc., when I got to Bates. But I had internalized many of these biases. This caused me to have expectations of who I would connect with, what “other” people were like, and a general misunderstanding of how the world works. As a result, I didn’t think about how people experienced the world differently from how I had experienced it prior to arriving at Bates, and how that informs the way we interact with individuals and institutions.
My privileges allowed me to go through life uncritically. I did not need to consider what it would be like to have one parent. To miss meals or have poor nutrition. To need to work instead of playing sports after school. To go to a school where I walked through a metal detector, had disengaged classmates and teachers, or outdated textbooks. To not be able to get help with schoolwork from parents who both had advanced degrees. To be female. To be transgender. To be everything in between. To be queer, to be Black, to be Latino. To spend school and summer vacations caring for younger siblings while parents work two jobs. To be scared walking around my hometown. To be scared in my home.
I sometimes tell people that I got to Bates by doing what was expected of me. I’m so fortunate to have my parents demand success from me, and then be able to support me. When I was applying to colleges, I could not have gotten in to Princeton, even if I wanted to. But, as many critiques of Fortgang’s piece have already explored, being asked to “check your privilege” is not equivalent to being told your accomplishments do not hold merit. To me, it means being asked to empathize.
Checking my privilege requires listening. It requires sympathy, it requires empathy, it requires understanding that people experience Bates, and the world in general, in extremely different ways. It means that I need to think deeply about what is and isn’t fair. It required being surrounded by extremely patient people who guided me from a place of compassion, not judgment. I will never finish checking my privileges because I will always have them, just as some of my friends will always hold some characteristics that can be extreme disadvantages in society.
As a result of checking my privileges – understanding how my whiteness, gender identity, heterosexuality, socioeconomic status, and many other characteristics inform my life – I now find it extremely important to work towards social justice. Essentially, I’d like to end privilege. Someone who is privileged can be very good at this work, often because it’s unexpected. Now I must realize how my privileges inform my social justice work. When my black friends are angry, they’re the “angry black man” or “sassy black woman”; my queer friends are “drama queens”; my female friends are “overreacting”; my poor friends are “jealous.” My anger over the same issues is taken seriously.
I have more opportunities to voice my opinion, because it’s rare to find an extremely involved ally with my characteristics and privileges. As a result, I need to be careful that I’ve listened to the people I’m advocating for, and I’m giving their voices and opinion life, not merely stating my own thoughts on things. And perhaps most importantly, because I’m only hurt indirectly by various power hierarchies – through the pain of those close to me – I have significantly more energy and ability to focus on proactive social justice activities.
I don’t think I’m special or better than anyone, particularly my fellow privileged peers at Bates. I had a number of very close and patient friends who held my hand as I struggled to overcome my biases and recognize my privileges. I did not make this journey on my own, and would not have made it without them. I wrote this by listening to those people, having an open mind, and understanding that everyone’s experiences are unique. I ask that we all try and do that more frequently.
Everyone should understand the biases they hold, and how that came to be. We should understand the advantages or disadvantages we have. We should understand how individuals function in system of privilege and oppression. And we should understand that empathy is the most important skill one should graduate from Bates with.