It's Thanksgiving, and I want to talk about privilege.
There are people who appear to have a lot of trouble either understanding what privilege really means or recognizing that they do in fact have some, and I want to talk about mine because I'm hoping it will clarify some things in a hopefully non-accusatory way (I will try to police my own tone on this one, but no promises) and also... just to express thanks. It IS Thanksgiving, after all.
So let's begin with what and who I am, in no particular order:
- Asian (specifically, Vietnamese)
- Upper middle class
- Heterosexual (though to be honest, I would call myself "heteroflexible" or "curious")
- American-born (to immigrant parents)
- Physically and mentally able
As you can see, there are areas where I have privilege and areas where I don't.
I'm heterosexual (for all intents and purposes), and I'm in a hetero relationship. And despite being unmarried (which comes with all its own judgments), if I wanted to get married, I would have NO problem. It will not be my marriage ever being protested on the front of a newspaper. The legality of my hypothetical marriage would never be threatened. When I look around in pop culture, the vast majority of relationships being depicted are hetero ones. I will never be bullied about the people I love. If I ever move out of California, I will never have to worry about getting fired because of my sexual preference.
I'm also cisgender (which means that my body has female parts, and I identify as female), which means that I will never know what it's like to be at odds with my own body, and I will never be forced to use the bathroom for a gender I don't identify with (and no one will bat an eyelash if I use the bathroom for the gender I DO identify with), and I will never have to correct anyone about my name or my pronouns. I will never be bullied, harassed, or murdered for being cisgender.
I'm an English-speaking American citizen. I can move through life and through the world easily because of this. And I know how hard it can be if you're a non-English-speaking immigrant, because that was most of my family right there. I grew up seeing how hard it could be.
I have no physical handicaps and no mental illness. I can walk and run, I can drive a car, I can interact with people to survive, and no one will think I pose any danger due to my mental state.
My biggest one is my financial and educational privilege, and yes, I lump them together. I am not only educated with an advanced degree, but I went to private schools for most of my life and have never had to work to pay for it. Thanks to my parents, who have well-paying jobs and who were therefore able to make education (and not merely survival) MY priority, I have been set up to succeed. My house has always been filled with books and the latest tech equipment. I have never had to sacrifice study time for a paycheck (or vice versa). Even now, despite the fact that I'm in a career field that is notoriously low paying, it's still a white-collar job with tenure and benefits for myself and my daughter, in one of the most expensive areas to live in the entire country. I have a roof over my head, and I can go to the doctor when I'm sick, and I can even afford Whole Foods -type groceries to feed my family if I wanted to. I have access to birth control, which means that I'm not forced to bear child after child. I even have some room to pay for my hobbies - running, knitting, makeup, derby - and I have the time for these hobbies because I don't have to work multiple jobs to support my family.
And while, yes, money can open a lot of doors, it doesn't protect me from everything.
Money can't save me from a lifetime of being told that I'M the one who has to take measures to keep myself from GETTING raped. Money can't save me from a lifetime of being told that because I'm fat, I am disgusting and deserve to be invisible. Money can't save me from the scores of "Where are you from? No, where are you REALLY from?" questions and the stereotypes and lack of representation of complex, well-written characters in all forms of media.
I'm female, which means that my body exists to be judged and commented on. It means that I would've been judged for NOT having children, but it also means that, since I DID have a child, I will still be judged for my choices regarding the birthing and raising of that child. It means that if I'm ever sexually assaulted, it will be MY character that is called into question, and not my attacker's, especially if the attacker is someone I know or have previously interacted with (as opposed to a lurking stranger). It means that I'm expected to take my husband's last name if I ever get married, and not vice versa, because marriage historically has been a contract that positions women as the property of their husbands. It means that when I go out in public, whether I'm going running or just trying to get from point A to point B, I'm vulnerable to men whistling at me or telling me that they'd like to c*m on my toes. (Yes, that actually happened. And no, I did not take it as a compliment.)
But... I'm a cisgender female, which means that no matter how difficult I have it as a woman, I still have it easier than trans women. This is called intersectionality. I'm not saying it's easy being female, but things could be a lot worse, because I have privilege in other areas.
I'm Asian, which means that I grew up never seeing many Asian people on my tv screen, unless it was something kung fu-related. I grew up seeing people put on my culture's traditional garb like a costume. I grew up painfully aware of Asian dragon-lady stereotypes and as I became an adult, I could also add "yellow fever" to the mix. At many points in my life, I've been asked to speak on behalf of Asian people (as a token), I've been asked things like, "Do Asians really eat dogs?" and "Can you teach me some curse words in your language?", and I constantly, every day, deal with living in this other space of being Asian and American. I grew up feeling American and identifying as American, being told by my family and my friends that I was "white-washed," and then went to a REALLY white college where I absolutely felt the weight of my otherness just by looking around at all the other faces.
But... and I'm going to be blunt here... Asians have it easier than other races. I would even dare assert that we are the second most-privileged race, and that has a whole lot to do with the Model Minority stereotype, which is insidiously damaging and contributes to anti-black and anti-Latino prejudice and oppression. Also, as a "full" Asian, I have it easier than people who are multiracial, who are visibly othered no matter which side of their family they turn to. I'm not saying it's easy being Asian, but things could be a lot worse, because I have privilege in other areas.
So, I have privilege in many ways, and in some ways, I don't have privilege.
Let's talk about what privilege is and what it isn't. While I've been talking a lot about the privilege that I do have, privilege isn't necessarily a personal, individual thing. It's a system. My own personal running-related analogy is that life is a race course, and when you have privilege, it's a nice, flat, paved road, and when you don't have privilege, it's a steep hill. Regardless of whether or not you have privilege, you still have to run the distance - no one can do it for you - and you still have to deal with pot holes, dog poop, and occasional less-than-ideal weather, but depending on how much privilege you have, your course might be otherwise perfectly flat, or it might comprised of gentle rolling hills, or it might be the toughest, steepest streets of San Francisco. Me? I have some hills, but it's otherwise manageable. I am extremely, extremely grateful for the privilege I have.
So what does this all mean? Well, it means I have choices I can make about my life, choices that are not afforded to everyone. For example, I can choose to be complacent and just continue on through life without paying attention to anyone around me. OR, I can choose to open my eyes, realize the struggles of those around me, and try to help. I can choose to be an ally.
To use my running analogy, if I see someone struggling off to the side, I will stop to check and see if they're okay. I will give them my extra Gu if they need it, or I will find an aid station or use my phone to call for help if they need it. And the key is "if they need it" - listening is a really important part of being a good ally.
I'm choosing to be an ally. I'm not perfect, and I don't get everything right, but I'm trying, and I'm willing to apologize and correct myself when I do something wrong.
This Thanksgiving, I'm grateful for my privilege, and I vow to use it for good.