Use Your Privilege

Identity is tricky. Identity politics can be really alienating and confusing.  Truth be told, I struggle with it, a lot because it’s complex and when we oversimplify it, it ends up leaving a lot out of the conversation. I want to (imperfectly) break down a few key points about privilege for those of you reading this blog by relating them to my own life and asking you to look at yours:

  1. Privilege is institutional.
  2. Privilege is situational.
  3. Because privilege is institutional and situational, it’s not individual (i.e. it’s not about you, specifically, as an individual)
  4. Where you have privilege, use it to advocate for those who don’t

Privilege is institutional: It is afforded to you because of the group you belong to, whether you like it or not

I have privilege.  Here are some clear examples of my privilege:

  • I am a UC Berkeley alumnus (3 times over)
  • I am a standard English speaker
  • I am a US citizen
  • I am heterosexual
  • I am in the middle class and own my home
  • I am Christian
  • I am employed in a professional setting
  • I am a professor

Now, you may say, “Hey, Betina, but you earned your degrees.  You chose your faith. You worked hard.  You deserve your privilege.” Those first 3 sentences are true.  I did earn my degrees.  I did choose my faith according to my beliefs.  I did work hard (and I still do), but that actually doesn’t change the fact that my privilege was accorded to me because of my group membership not because of my hard work.  The above groups that I belong to afford me certain benefits in this society not available to others that are actually not given to me because of anything I earned, it’s because I either belong to the majority or with that group membership, there comes power.

It’s important for me to acknowledge that privilege and use it for good.  That’s why I’m wearing a safety pin.  To me, it says, I will use my privilege where I can, how I can, to stand with people who do not have privilege where I might.

Privilege is situational: It shifts

As you can see above, I occupy places of clear privilege.  I also occupy some spaces of muddy privilege such as being Chinese-American.  In the Asian-American community, being Chinese-American and relatively light skinned, I may have some privilege over some of my other Asian-American brothers and sisters.  When people think, “Asian-American,” it is likely an image of someone like me that comes to their mind, for good or bad, and the struggles of some of the Asian-American community can be muted by my success.  I know I have privilege because I can stay silent and still occupy my place in the Asian-American community without feeling threatened.  But, in the greater world, as a Chinese-American who strongly identifies as Asian-American, things are different. Asian-Americans (all of us) are seen as never quite American.  We are victims of mockery & derision, hate crimes, told to go back to China (when many of us don’t even have Chinese heritage, and I’ve never actually been to China), and questioned about our language, immigration status and nationality.  Sometimes, we are questioned about our position and professionalism too.

But, an even better example of shifting privilege is my educational privilege.  You can’t see it walking down the street.  The very same people who might listen to me in a classroom (because I have a large degree of power as a professor) might cause me fear when I walk out of the classroom because they belong to groups that have historically oppressed people who look like me.  I didn’t change.  They didn’t change.  The situation changed. And that shift created a change in power.  Privilege is about who has power in any situation.

Because privilege is institutional and situational, it’s not individual (i.e. it’s not about you, specifically, as an individual)

If I know you (or even if I don’t and you’ve read this far in the blog), I probably don’t have a problem with you as an individual.  In fact, I probably like you. We probably trade pictures of our kids doing cute things and swap restaurant recommendations.  I’m not calling you out as an individual.  But, I’m saying that if you don’t take time to reflect on where you have privilege, any privilege, in your life, and you’re only focused on where you’re oppressed, you are part of the problem.

I’ve seen lots of people who are legitimately afraid, especially after the election, and people who are very angry on both sides of the election for not being heard: white working class people, white women, white members of the LGBTQ community, people of color who are elite academics, middle class women of color, Muslim-Americans, etc. And I KNOW that not everyone’s scale of oppression is the same (yes, I am aware it’s life or death for some people), but what I’m saying is to look at yourself, because it’s not about you, it’s about privilege, and power, and the consequences of unchecked privilege and power that may not impact you because of your particular group belonging.

Where you have privilege, use it to advocate for those who don’t

So, where’s your commitment?  Mine is to look at my privilege and, in the situations where I have power, to promise that I will use my privilege to advocate for those that do not have privilege in that area.  Yes, there is intersectionality (the place where different parts of your identity intersect like being a woman of color v. a white woman) and I get it’s complicated, but I’m saying WHERE I HAVE CLEAR PRIVILEGE, WHERE I CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE, I WILL BE A VOICE FOR THOSE THAT HAVE LESS PRIVILEGE AND POWER than I do.  I ask you to take a hard look at yourself and do the same.

Let’s check out our own planks before (and in addition to) calling out the specks (and planks) of others.

That’s it for today.  Peace to you all.

Hope in Community


It’s been an extremely long week.

Here’s what’s been giving me hope in the latter half of this week:

Teaching an amazing group of teacher candidates on Wednesday afternoon: 


On the Afternoon After the Election

Helping to coordinate a campus tour for HS juniors & seniors who visited our campus today and talking with them about their perspectives on the week: 

Family, friends and students who have shown amazing solidarity, support, and vulnerability, and have blessed me with their wisdom and compassion. 

Flowers from a student on Wednesday afternoon

Flowers from a student on Wednesday afternoon

Resources shared by friends and colleagues to stand up to hate in ways that show solidarity, including: 

Speak Up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry

The Safety Pin Movement

Resources for the Day After the Election

Suggestions for What To Do In This Transition Period (Before January) by Demographic Group

Concrete plans with colleagues to continue the work beyond this week and a renewed commitment to creating safe space (for everyone, including those I disagree with) wherever I can. 

It’s been such a hard week. I am exhausted.  But I am still standing.  And I will keep standing up and speaking out, in my own way.

The work starts here. The work starts now. The work starts in community.

Never Quite American


I was born in upstate New York

I was raised speaking only English in a middle-class suburb around very nice people

I gravitated towards American and European history and literature in school, chose French as my second language

I grew up in a Protestant church, singing hymns and going to youth groups

I attended public schools my whole life

I majored in American studies at a public university

I taught English

I am a scholar of English Education and literacy

I am America in so many ways, and I am certainly American.

Or am I?

I was born to Chinese immigrant parents who spoke with an accent despite their high levels of education and their eventual American naturalization.

My mother was told that teaching me to speak Mandarin or Taiwanese would be a liability and would label me as an “English Language Learner” putting me in a different category from the other kids.

I only know the rich histories of Asian Americans like Yuri Kochiyama, Larry Itliong, and Grace Lee Boggs because of my own research and communities.

I go to a multiracial church after years of feeling alienated by a larger Christian community which felt insular with empty promises of faith without justice

I am married to a Latino immigrant man who was once undocumented and adopted two African American girls who suffered years of alienation as people glared at them as children on the street with their homeless parents.

I fear for students that look like me, think like me, and fear much worse for those that have backgrounds, stories, histories, skin tone like my husband and daughters.

I am confronted by this dichotomy when…

…Chinese New Year or Moon Festival come around and I become the cultural expert on celebrations that I am only vaguely familiar with myself

…I go to my son’s Chinese school, and it is assumed that I speak so I feel ashamed or hesitant to even be there

…I hear stories of Americans, like me, who know no other home being told to “go back” to some other country

…I get asked if I speak English or someone compliments on how well I speak

…I see other Christians deride people of other faiths, especially our Muslim brothers and sisters, and turn a blind eye to the suffering of the world

…I see all of my children, the two I bore and the two I adopted, play together. They are all American, but they are never quite American either. Their realities are always in jeopardy.

…I don’t feel safe against racial slurs, against attack when I am running or even when I am sitting in my office in broad daylight.

Today, I am afraid because no matter how I feel, no matter my nationality

I will never be quite American.

Learning Compassion


It’s been an extremely long and full week.

This time of the semester is always extremely stressful as my students are preparing to turn in high-stakes teacher performance assessments that are gatekeepers between them and their credentials.  The pressure is on and their stress can be contagious.

It’s also the point in the semester where classes have major assignments due; there’s usually some type of flu or virus that knocks several students down physically; and we all work at limping towards the Fall break that comes during Thanksgiving week.

I decided to add a new lecture to my literacy course, on critical literacy, something that’s super important to me and honoring something I know is important to my work, but that is hard to address in 2.5 hours when I really feel like 1 full semester isn’t enough.

I had two major assignments to grade x 30.

I was singing backup vocals with my choir for a local performance of the Wiz. 5 shows in 4 days.

I hosted a panel of former students (current teachers) in my Curriculum & Instruction class that was overall positive but needed a 2-hour debrief in order to support a student in recognizing how important his position (as a white male teacher) was to consider in saying problematic things about the parents of his (mainly Black and Latinx) parents.

Then my older daughter missed her flight home. She ended up getting another ticket on a flight 3 hours later, and I sent an e-mail to the airline asking for compassion and some type of credit on the canceled reservation despite a clear policy that meant we were out of luck.

And tonight, as I was thinking about this overdue blog (they usually come out on Fridays), I realized that this whole week was a series of lessons on compassion–suffering with, and finding joy in the suffering.

I lead a very fortunate life where I get to do things that I love and have people I love around me (even with some delay and a lot of stress), but sometimes, in fact, many times this week, I have felt the strain of all there is to do to honor the deep commitments I hold, and it has caused me to feel strained, and tired, and not good at anything, certainly not at the things that I most value.

But this morning, as we were on our morning dog walk, my 10-year old son, who can often be impatient with his 18-month old sister, offered her his hand to help her walk around on the sidewalk, like a big girl–a big girl with support, but a proud little sister, helped by someone she greatly admires to move forward and develop. That joyful moment really struck me.

It struck me because, as much as I believe in finding that joy in the midst of suffering, I also believe that suffering comes (in whatever small or large form) to remind us of our humanity.  Humanity joins us in a world that can often be incredibly divisive.  We have a choice to be annoyed at what is happening around us and keep walking on our own path or to reach out a hand to help someone who may need that hand.  When we are in the position to offer that support, we can’t know how much that support means to the person we are supporting.

I can show compassion to my students because I get how stressful life can be.  I can show compassion to myself because I know that I’m trying the best I can–starting where I am, and trying to move forward.  And, I’m starting to learn that I can also accept support from those who get what I’m going through too.  Some may think that’s a sign of weakness, but I see it as a sign of strength and development.

And in that small measure, I am being the change I wish to see, doing the work that needs to be done, and starting, imperfectly with myself and those closest to me.