Why Is It So Hard to Talk About Privilege?
Privilege is something that all of us have, in one form or another. Here at Packer, we all have extreme educational privilege, which can manifest itself in many different ways. Many of us benefit from our identifiers every day without knowing it; others, however, do not have that same freedom to disassociate.
On the surface, privilege seems to be a simple issue: some have certain benefits that have been assigned to them, many of which are unearned. But the concept of privilege itself is much more complex, and I thought that, because I am so privileged becoming aware of my own advantages would be easy.
This PIA day centered around Privilege, Money, and Power, and I was surprised to find that I felt a deep discomfort and shame while discussing my own wealth. Throughout the whole day and during the rich discussions that I had, I was frustrated because I did not understand why I was feeling the way I did. This begs the question: Why is it so hard for us to talk about privilege?
In general, I find that I do not have trouble talking about my white privilege. Through many enlightening discussions I have had in my time at Packer, I have learned to regularly check my own white privilege, and grasp how I can use my privilege to benefit others. This is not to say that conversations surrounding race are not hard, but I feel that I more readily recognize my white privilege in a society that has deeply rooted institutionalized racism than I do my socioeconomic privilege. This is also not to say that my own race doesn’t effect the way I view these issues, because it does, but why is it that a feeling of hot shame only fills my stomach when I talk about money? I feel as though thinking about my white privilege is encouraged, but rarely am I ever encouraged to think about my economic privileges.
Throughout PIA day, I constantly felt the need to justify myself. “My family is pretty wealthy,” I would say, “but my parents were poor growing up and worked hard to get to where they are today.” I kept asking myself: why did I have to add, and even emphasize, the “but”? It is true that my parents grew up with just enough, and I was vocally checking my privilege as a wealthy person in my story exchange group, but I still felt ashamed.
The Privilege Walk was highly controversial. One’s answers to the questions asked during the activity, which related to socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, and race, warranted steps forwards or backward in an attempt to demonstrate our differing levels of privilege. Walking through the hallways during break and lunch, I heard comments from my peers about their experience with the activity. Personally, I found myself in the back/middle of the gym, which I felt accurately represented my view of my privilege. This was not the case for many of my white peers, who interestingly found themselves towards the front of the line, prompting them to stop stepping, because they felt that it did not accurately represent their privilege.
Many of the people of color who I have talked to about the walk have differing opinions about the efficacy of the activity. Some of people of color said that the walk was a good visual representation or the distribution of privilege in our community, while others who found themselves towards the front of the gym felt isolated, embarrassed, and alone, which they felt defeated the purpose of the activity.
Overall, I still don’t know how I felt about this activity. It was not that I was surprised by the results, but because I still feel as though I am not ‘allowed’ to have an opinion on it. I think this is because I was not in the front of the gym, and I did not feel isolated whatsoever. I felt that my role after the activity was to listen to those who were deeply affected by it, and learn as much as I could about my own privilege.
Many white students I debriefed with had similar feelings of discomfort and shame. Examining one’s own privilege, especially economically, is not an easy feat. I learned this in my workshop at the end of the day, entitled “Started From the Bottom, Now We’re Here.” I heard many other student’s stories revolving around socio-economic status, and I shared my own. I heard from students of color about their experiences, and we talked about how wealth manifested itself at Packer: clothing, school supplies, the college process, vacations, and even casual and seemingly harmless phrases like “where are you going over Spring break?” as opposed to “what are you doing over Spring break?”
Listening to other’s thoughts, opinions, and stories regarding how socioeconomic status manifests itself at Packer was an incredibly enlightening experience for me. So enlightening, in fact, that I realized why privilege was, and is, so hard for me to think about: I was trying to neatly understand everything. I was trying to put everything in little boxes and tie them with strings to make a simple, pretty picture of what privilege looks like. However, privilege is not a simple, pretty picture, and this realization allowed me to address the discomfort and shame that came along with talking about my privilege.