When the use of the word “privilege” came into common use in reference to being white, I’ll admit that my initial reaction was to rebuff it. I thought it was a broad brushing term that didn’t apply to me, as I was neither affluent, nor had I been afforded any opportunity for success that anyone else didn’t receive as a result of hard work.
I never had a chance to get a private education, or even a college degree despite my scholastic efforts and high grades. I had no trust fund to rely upon, no rich relatives with connections to bail me out of any trouble I got myself into. If I screwed up, I paid the price that anyone else in my position would have. Or so I thought.
I had even experienced an encounter where I was followed around a high end store as if they were expecting me to stuff some item of clothing under my shirt or in my bag. Every step I took a worker shadowed me. Upon entering the changing room, she took the garments I was going to try on to personally count them. Then she gave me the tag with that number and counted them again when I was finished. The whole experience was so humiliating to me that I left, refusing to buy anything from the establishment again, nor even to step foot in one. I could empathize with their plight, right? Wrong.
What I didn’t understand or take into account was the fact that I only had one anecdote to offer. One humiliating experience in my lifetime, in only one store. I had no idea what it felt like to have that occur daily, in every store I entered. I had been judged only on the clothes I was wearing that didn’t adhere to the attire of their typical clientele. I could change my outfit and have an entirely different experience in the same store with the same worker if I wanted to. The people who experienced it daily didn’t have the luxury of being able to change their skin color.
That one small epiphany allowed me to open my mind to something that my defensiveness had refused to allow me to see. I also opened my ears and began listening to the pain behind the stories that my friends of all hues were sharing. I never had the experience of someone crossing the street to avoid me just because of how I looked. I never had someone lock their car door as I walked by to get to my own. I don’t live in a city, so cab rides aren’t part of my life, but if one passed me by I know my first thought would be that their shift was over or they had been called to another address, and not that they were afraid to ride with me.
I cannot possibly know what that constant pre-judgment would feel like. What it would do to my psyche and self worth to feel the weight of that pain. I can’t fathom the fear induced by being pulled over in a strange town for speeding. I, like I assume anyone who looks like me does, would expect merely to hand over my license and registration, wait for the officer to write the citation, and leave and pay it later. No thought of being asked if I have drugs or weapons. No assumption, in fact, that I had them in the first place.
When I stepped back to look at just these few scenarios, the word that kept resonating was the one that had previously caused me to recoil…privilege. The definition of which is a right or liberty granted to some and not others. I had the liberty of walking down the street without askance looks. I had the immunity of assumption of nefarious motives. I had the confidence that were I ever arrested, I wouldn’t feel the pressure of an officer’s foot on my neck. If after reading this you don’t see that as a privilege, then maybe you can learn as I did to listen to our brothers’ and sisters’ stories. Maybe one of them can change your heart like they changed mine.
As always, wishing you health, safety, and justice for all.
4 thoughts on “What I misunderstood about the word Privilege”
I appreciate your careful explanation, Jen. I said this to Jordan yesterday when he was saying that he doesn’t want to watch the news about the riots and the killing of George Floyd because it’s too depressing. I said “Just remember that you have the luxury to turn off the news to escape from these issues.” When you’re Black in this country, you can’t turn it off because it’s your life.
These are sad, scary times. We have to stick together (“we” being the human race). We need each other more than ever.
I’m grateful for the privilege to discuss this in an intellectual way, instead of having to live it every day. 😢
Thanks for your blog, Jen.
I’ve been following, but not speaking. Trying to take it all in and learn. Xoxo
This is one of the most powerful “awakenings” articulated. We are the “middle” generation – in that it was our grandparents and our own parents that started to delineate some of the injustice – but it feel upon our generation to truly understand the damage of the attitudes of the previous societal norms and thoughts/practices. What happened a few days ago – is something my gramma woulda read in the paper – in no way, shape or form should ANYONE be allowed to act or conduct themselves in such an ignorant and PRIVILEGED way in todays world. We are the “woke” generation therefore, it is our job to set the path for the future thinkers and path creators to a better world for all of us. Thank you Jennifer. This was truly beautiful and it is something that is a revelation I wish so many others would have. Your heart is good.
Thank you, my friend. Still learning & trying to keep growing. Adore you and have missed you. Hope you’re doing well. Xoxo