Battling up against my privilege

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” – Marianne Williamson

girl looks out car passenger windowWhen I was a teenager I lived out in “the sticks” (as we called it). It was a thirty minute curve hugging cliff drive from the nearest stop light or public building. Getting my drivers license was imperative to being able to go anywhere, and yet I held out as long as I could to get it.  I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I knew that cars were one of the most common causes of deaths and I was terrified to get behind the wheel and become the source of pain to someone else. I was so fearful of it that I held out as long as I could until my parents demanded it of me.

I share this because I keep getting stuck in this loop of opportunity and worry and this same mentality affects me today. I was talking with my dear friend, with whom we have an uncanny parallel of life experiences, emotional reactions, and passions. She was wanting to talk over what her career trajectories might be and was feeling some anxiety about it, which of course is exactly what I’m going through too, and I suspect a lot of 20-somethings right now. She was sharing (with real joy and passion in her voice) her dreams to work with underprivileged youth and to work in higher education. She kept circling back from sheer passion and excitement to guilt and worry.  The education system in California is struggling, and higher education is becoming less and less valued and less and less accessible. First generation kids, and marginalized students struggle through the beurocratic system more than ever, and she wants to be that support for those that brave it, to help them on their path to grow and find themselves. “But then I’m just another one of those White cis ablebodied women” she lamented. And I knew what she meant. This is what I am always battling with. It’s the same fear that kept me from getting my drivers license.

She and I, are both scared to step up into leadership, because it can hurts others.  We critique how dominated the institution of higher education is by centralized/privileged identities (and other institutions/industries). We live in a culture that glorifies and yet naturalizes Whiteness, healthy bodies, middle to upper class status, heterosexuality, citizenship, and cisgendered bodies. That means that any industry that is dominated by those identities is valued and celebrated. Higher Education is one of those, and my friend and I are (totally justifiably) worry about how our very presence is damaging to efforts to turn that around.

Yet, this line of thinking is dangerous to all of us. It’s by the nature of our very being (just BEING White, or just BEING ablebodied) makes us a threat. What I have always done in response to this reality is to deactivate myself and try not to contribute at all. Whereas I see this as totally legitimate and true (that our very presence as White cis ablebodied women is contributing to the oppressive system), our silence and self-deactivation when we are passionate about turning it around is even worse.

I recommended a song to my friend that really spoke to me in this regard, “A Wake” by Macklemore (see above) to which she replied, “I’ve stopped listening to him because of the criques of his content being nothing new, but only glorified because of his whiteness“, which totally struck me! You’re right. Macklemore isn’t the first rapper to talk about LGBT issues or celebrate difference. That doesn’t delegitimize his contribution. We shouldn’t stop listening to him because someone else without his privilege said it before him. Now that we’ve realized this, lets find and listen to all of it! (get a sampling below)

(That’s a playlist, but it seems to not be auto playing. Go down the full rabbit-hole here)

Sitting on the sidelinesAnd yes, we (as a society) don’t listen to marginalized people, or allow them to step up to the mic as we do for White cisgendered heterosexual people. That’s the nature of oppression.  I argue that we need to realize the inequality and grow bigger, not shrink up and listen to none of it. This is the distinction that I’m learning: My job isn’t to sit in the corner and deactivate myself so that marginalized people can get up to the mic. That’s not working. We all need allies. My work is to sing my heart out at the mic and support the building of a culture that invites oppressed people onto the stage more and more. It means that I actively listen to and cheer those that take up their own mics, and sit down when needed to allow room for others. Spending my whole life sitting out means that I’m missing the performance all together, that I’m not supporting those people all throughout, and that my own lessons, experience, and passions are being lost. It means that I’m taking my bag full of privilege, and spending my whole life trying to lose it instead of stepping up with it, exposing it, and using it to forward something.

It is vital that I be able to look at my privilege in the face. Instead of running away from it, or trying to lose it, it’s more important for me to come face to face with it and not argue with it or try to diminish it. Whenever I am confronted by someone about my privilege, I make my mistake/assumption mean that I am a bad person, not, that I learned this behavior and its something that I can fix/change. My heartbreak in these interactions debilitizes me and I just wish that they wouldn’t be so upset. But they have a complete right to be angry (of course!) As Karnythia says to those wanting to be a good ally (from Angry Black Woman) “Don’t expect your feelings to be a priority in a discussion about X issue. Oftentimes people get off onto the tone argument because their feelings are hurt by the way a message was delivered. If you stand on someone’s foot and they tell you to get off? The correct response is not “Ask nicely” when you were in the wrong in the first place.”

This is an art quilt that I created regarding this subject.
This is an art quilt that I created regarding this subject.

I should never expect that coming to terms with my privilege is going to be easy. People who have spent their whole lives having to defend themselves for who they are are allowed to be upset. It’s my job to not fight that anger, but to look at my privilege and take responsibility, not to shrivel up and try to ignore it because it hurts. Finally, I constantly need to remind myself that oppression is a system, that we have all been so trained in, so submerged in, that we oftentimes don’t know any other way, and in the seat of privilege, it’s become so natural that it’s invisible to us. When I wore my hair in dreadlocks, or am attracted to trending patterns marked as “tribal”, I’m not personally attacking anyone or even aware of the damage that I do. But when I listen to others and learn how it perpetuates the colonialization of brown people via appropriation, my job is to listen and stop, not to decide that I’m a horrible person. It’s not necessarily about you, and that you (as a person) are wrong, but more that it’s what you thought was true, what you’ve been taught that’s hurting others. It’s not about me, but it’s up to me. Does that make sense? I didn’t carve this path, but I’m perpetuating it and hurting others by staying on it. You can’t step outside of the system, so my deactivating of myself and being quiet only keeps that path going. I also have a lot to share regarding appropriation (but that’s for another blog down the line). So there’s a discussion that I can contribute to on this. I have a voice on this, but my job as an ally is to actively listen to others, allow space for others, while also stepping up, not sit on my hands.

Here’s some great resources that I find talk about privilege in a healthy way:

  1. First, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack of White Privilege (classic, put into video form)
  2. How to Be a Good Ally (video)
  3. And here’s more great ally resources/advice on Angry Black Woman (as referenced above)
  4. Louie CK’s great standup on privilege (video). Seeing Privilege as a Gift. Being transparent about privilege.

What are your thoughts? How do you navigate your dreams within the context of a broken and unfair system?

More on my  thoughts on participating in the system here (and more on my quilt!)

5 thoughts on “Battling up against my privilege

  1. Hey Cheyenne!

    I don’t know if you remember me, but I knew you in high school :)….Maija Rohde. We are friends on FB and I came across your blog. I read it and it really resonated with me. You’re a great writer with great insight!
    I also read that you are living in Berkeley??? I live in the Bay Area too!!! Do you remember Briana Harney? She lives about a mile away from me. We both live in Castro Valley.
    Anyway, I just wanted to pop in and say hello :)…shoot me a message on FB if you ever feel like going for a hike or something.

    All the best!

    Maija

    1. Hi Maija,

      Of course I remember you! I think that Briana and I might have been in girlscouts together too, but I might be wrong about that. Thank you for your sweet words. It’s an emotional subject for me, and it’s very easily triggering, so I’m not sure what the response might be. I’m learning more and more about it as I talk it out.
      I’d love to meet up, let’s chat on FB. Good to hear from you ❤

  2. I am way beyond being twenty something in years. However even though I’m a minority I have some of the fears that you do. After all these years I’d rather be an average person than a leader because deep down inside I;m afraid I’ll get out of touch with the average people. I don’t fall back on the fact that I;m ethnic to excuse my own shortcomings or things I neglect to do when I know it’s me not society. Me as a minority person has to be careful of that. I don’t think the world owes me anything. Just sharing another side.

    1. Thank you for expressing that Shalilah, I so appreciate you for sharing that. That’s a great point. What I’m hearing in what you shared is that you don’t want to get disconnected from your community by stepping into leadership.
      Leadership is super broad and ambiguous, but I would say that 1) speaking your mind 2) being an example of what you want the world to be like, and 3) taking responsibility are all leadership qualities that don’t necessitate any change of class/power/identity, but inspire others (and yourself) to live life more powerfully.
      I find it to be so humbling every time I share something about how I feel, thinking that it’s a quality of my distinct identity/experiences, and I get educated (pretty much every time) on how worry, and fear are parts of the human condition and everyone has their own flavor of the same thing.
      Thank you again for sharing so authentically.
      with gratitude,

      Cheyenne

  3. I’m doubly conflicted here – first because the Mongolian education system is broken in its own ways, and secondly because of how my life experiences compare to those of the other Americans here. The second point is the one more relevant to this post; I’ve spent a lot of my time here feeling like a stupid little rich girl – ignorant, inexperienced, and acutely aware that my lack of experience outside the protective bubble in which I grew up reflects a highly privileged background. Thank you for giving voice to that feeling, and for providing resources to address it.

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