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.

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