Underprivileged Privilege

Sarah G. is interning with Sadie Nash Leadership Project this summer.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my personal privilege and how it shapes my perception of the world. As one of two white girls in my office, I’ve been confronted with my race for the first time.

I’ve never really considered being white as a significant part of my identity. That sounds kind of silly, but for most of my life race has been a complete non-issue, so I never spent much time thinking about it. Growing up, this translated to me being very much oblivious to race as a factor in any situation. Because I wasn’t really aware of how my race influenced my life, I was also blind as to how it shaped the experiences of other people. My ignorance has whittled away with the years – especially since I’ve been in college – but it wasn’t until I found myself as the obvious minority that I really began to examine how race shapes who we are and how we interact with other people.

Recently we had a particularly heavy conversation at work in which many of my coworkers – who identify with various racial and ethnic minorities – spoke candidly of their experiences with white people. The overwhelming majority of these were negative. I found myself feeling acutely guilty, and embarrassed – which I realized wasn’t exactly fair – but mostly I wondered how I could work my undeniable privilege to my advantage as I become more involved in the feminist movement.

The truth is, I’m not really sure how I can do that.

Does being white and upper class automatically render me unable to meaningfully contribute to the movement? I hope not, but I think the first thing I need to do is really understand that I do come from a position of enormous privilege, and that though I can’t necessarily relate to certain experiences of other people, it doesn’t mean that I can’t respect those experiences and try to take the resources that are available to me and channel them towards contributing to social change. I’ve been thinking a lot about the excerpts from Manifesta and Grassroots that we read, and the idea that we should use the resources we have access to rather than try to utilize resources we don’t have really resonated with me. As a white college-aged girl, there are certain resources I have – like knowledge of social media and connections to older and wealthier people – and there are certain resources that I don’t have.

Rather than try to be someone I’m not, or feel bad for being who I am, I should recognize the power and privilege that I do have, and go from there. If I can do that, and also respect the power and privilege of others, I think I’ll be on the right track towards productive, active feminism.

4 thoughts on “Underprivileged Privilege

  1. Sarah,
    Sounds like you are on the right track. Certainly, all of us who’ve had the benefit of a Duke education, and the wherewithall to get there in the first place, are enormously privileged. And, yes, race is a factor for almost everybody. You can’t be somebody you’re not, but you can apply your advantages of education and position–honed analytical and intellectual skills as well as connections–to issues of social justice.
    Best wishes.

  2. What you describe is similar to what I experienced 25 years ago as a rising junior at Duke. I spent my summer interning in NYC (Harlem) as one of two white people at the organization. There were about 10 interns and two supervisors. Our task was to supervise and mentor less privileged HS students working at various locations in the five boroughs. I was lucky to be assigned the SoHo area. Twice a week I took the subway from 125th St downtown, typically with my co-interns. I was robbed once and my peers and supervisors had no sympathy, saying it comes with territory of working in Harlem. It was 1986 and crime was at or near its worst. Another time, when walking alone, I was followed to the subway station by police and told never to walk alone on 125th St. again. That summer opened my eyes to what it meant to feel like a minority, singled out, different, and a victim. In my post doc in psychology, my colleagues were predominantly minority. I recall a dinner in NYC where I was the only white person among a dozen minorities. I was uncomfortable as I watched other white diners eye us carefully. I was acutely aware of being viewed as different and unwelcome by fellow diners. During this dinner, I listened to my friends’ stories about being targeted for being Black. They’d been arrested and had other interactions with the law despite doing nothing wrong. They’d been judged to be incompetent by teachers, even though they’d achieved the highest level of education. On a professional level, we shared aspirations, educational backgrounds, and successes. On a personal level, their lives were marked with far more hardship and suffering than I could imagine, all because our skin colors were different. These experiences are still vivid in my memory, and I reflect on them to try to relate to others less fortunate. I dedicated my career to research and policy to advocate for those less privileged, mostly victims of partner violence and child abuse. There have been many bumps along the way, each clarifying how to do better and stay focused. You are off to a great start and I really like your idea to use your resources and connections to shape how you work toward social change. Keep up the great work.

  3. I agree with Russell it sounds like you are on the right track but one thing you wrote gave me pause, which is the sentiment that you can’t relate to people whose experiences are different than yours. Your honesty is admirable but I don’t believe for one second that you lack the empathy to relate to people whose experiences are different than yours. No one can truly walk a mile in another’s shoes, but you can hear their stories and relate on a human level. What would you do in their situation? How would you feel? What resources can one make out of little or nothing?

  4. Sarah,

    First, I applaud your courage to blog about such an uncomfortable topic. I recently had a conversation with two white people about white privilege and was left wondering a question I am often left wondering (which I will state in a minute) that (I believe) contributes to the very experience you are going through right now. The question is: why don’t white people talk to their children about white privilege?

    Growing up, my parents were very clear to point out the privileges I was blessed with (a loving family, a warm home with people who listened to me, friends that respected me, educational opportunities, etc.) and constantly emphasized “to whom much is given much is expected.” I think it’s awesome that you’ve gotten to this point through introspection and that you are using this time to figure out how to (1) acknowledge your privilege, (2) without apologizing for it, and (3) find ways to use your privilege and vantage point to contribute to creating a more just society.

    I’m a middle-class African-American woman with a degree from Duke, TC-Columbia, and working on a Ph.D.; so clearly I understand conversations about privilege (which is why I’m commending you). As Duke grads, despite any other characteristic, we ALL have privilege. As women, despite any other characteristics, we ALL are “privilege challenged.” There are many types of privilege, but there is something very fundamental about white privilege in America…crucial to understanding very much of what happens in our society. And because the topic is so heavy, it is attractive to leave it alone, or (which I think is worse) disguise it (this is the “it’s not about race, it’s about class” conversation I so often hear). My challenge to you is to stick with this; through the heaviness and the anger and the confusion and the sadness and the extreme desire to say “the hell with it.” Your understanding of the privilege you operate with WILL make you a better advocate, a better feminist, a better person. This powerful conversation is not had enough, and certainly not had enough across racial lines. I’m more than happy to continue this specific conversation with you as you continue your summer experience.


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