Friday, August 13, 2010


Privilege is a funny thing. When you have it, you tend to be unaware of it. When you don’t have it, it’s glaringly obvious to you. I’ve never thought of myself as privileged. Never. It’s so easy to focus on what you don’t have, the ways in which your life is harder, the struggles you have to face - that it’s often difficult to remember the ways in which your life is easier, that you face less obstacles than someone else.

As a light skinned Black person, I’ve often seen resentment in the faces of others who were darker than me. Raised in a working/middle class, fairly educated family, I’ve never thought about how that may have made my life easier than those who had less - money and education.

I’ve always been MUCH more aware of those who had more. Maybe that’s because I was raised in an environment where most people had more and those who had less were rarely even in my range of sight.

Growing up in Riverdale, surrounded by White, solidly middle class people, I was always on the bottom of the ladder - even before I clearly understood what that meant. I mean, there were a few kids who had less money than I did, but not many. And they all had a greater social standing, just by the very nature of the color of their skin and their family status.

When I was a kid, EVERYONE had both a mother and father at home. I was the only one with a single mother, that I was aware of. Certainly I was the only one with a mother who was a Playboy Bunny and had a different live-in boyfriend every few years. Well, maybe that sounds a little harsh - there really weren’t that many. Earl, Fred, (a couple of guys who didn’t really live with us, but were around a lot, whose names I can’t remember) and finally she married Paul, who was closer to my age than my mother’s. I guess that’s not too many over the course of 15 years. But then again, I don’t know - good or bad - I’ve spent 15 years with one man.

But this isn’t about my mother’s romances, the point of it is that I didn’t have the social standing of having two parents in my house, who could interact with, build relationships and support systems with the other parents - so that lowered my status easily as much as having less money and being Black did.

I grew up being acutely aware that I was different - and not just different, but less than - everyone else around me. Even before I knew why, I felt it and let it become a part of my understanding of myself.

So, by the time I got to high school and junior high school and college and started experiencing those who had, or felt they had less than me, reacting to the privilege they perceived I had - I was so used to being the one with the least, that it was virtually impossible for me to see that I had much, much more than many others. And I couldn’t understand the anger and resentment that was focused on me by those who thought I had more.

My first experience with this was one I didn’t understand until recently. It actually happened even before junior high school, when I was in 4th or 5th grade. A new boy started in our class. I guess he was bussed in - but I’m not sure how that worked. As far as I know, he was the only one. I don’t remember there being other kids who came to our school from out of the neighborhood - but maybe I was just oblivious. All I knew was that he was new, not from Riverdale and mean. Really, really mean.

From day one, the new boy, Walter, seemed ready to fight. This didn’t sit well with me because in my own struggle to feel a part of something, to feel worthy, I had taken on the cause of not letting boys intimidate and degrade the girls.

Sometime around 3rd grade the boys started teasing the girls, picking on them, even hurting them, but mostly acting like they were better than the girls. It was dead smack in the middle of the Women’s Rights era and girls were being taught that they could do anything boys could do, and I took that message to heart (yes I get the irony of being a budding feminist with a Bunny mother). And since I was bigger and taller than most of the people, boys or girls, in my class, I took it on myself to protect the girls. Anytime a girl was picked on by a boy, she came to me and I made the boy see the error of his ways. But then Walter came to school.

Walter didn’t seem to be much interested in generally picking on the girls like the other boys did. Walter seemed to want to pick on me. Every chance he got, he was trying to hurt me. Punching, pushing, shooting rubber bands, whatever way he could think of, he would lash out at me. I stood up to him, but was thrown off - why did this boy hate ME so much? Eventually, Walter’s resentment towards me bubbled over and he actually chased me into the girls bathroom, knocked me to the ground and kicked me over and over. He had to be pulled out of the room forcibly by teachers and shortly after that he left the school.

I remember being so relieved that he was gone. Not just because he had literally kicked my ass - which no other boy had been able to do - but because even when he wasn’t trying to hurt me, he made me uncomfortable.

I had no words, no understanding at all back then for why he left me feeling so out of sorts, embarrassed, uncomfortable with his presence. I just knew I didn’t want him there. That the sight of his brown skin, hard wiry body, tan construction boots (damn those things HURT when he kicked me) and shabby clothes made me feel ill at ease.

It would be many, many, many years - way into adulthood - before I would realize that my discomfort was because he made me see my own privilege as well as how tentative it was. I was so used to being on the bottom, that it was uncomfortable for me to see that there was plenty of space beneath me. But even more disturbing than being faced with the knowledge that I had it better than someone else, was the fear that others would see the similarities between him and I and place me even further down - with him.

As a kid I couldn’t recognize it at all, even as a younger adult, I couldn’t understand it. I look back now and see that there were other instances throughout my life that I was equally oblivious too. My first boyfriend in junior high school, whose sister who called me an “oreo” and told him that I had to give up all my my white friends or he couldn’t see me. The boys who stood outside Clinton high school(which I think is coed now, but was all boys back then), which was behind Bronx Science, and yelled taunts at me and made comments about me thinking I was too good for them. The basketball player in college who would alternately ask me out and insult me, telling me I didn’t know who I was. The woman on an online message board a few years ago who insisted that ALL light-skinned Black people were privileged and tore into me when I dared to disagree with her - telling me to open my eyes. Finally, a friend who despite having what appeared to be a perfect life with a husband, house and three beautiful kids, constantly on edge with me, always making comments about the texture of my hair and the color of my skin.

With all of these people, I wondered over and over, why single me out? What was wrong with them that they treated me as though I had done something to them, had taken something away from them, or was blocking them from getting something? Why couldn’t they get over their pettiness and just let me be? And what was this idea that came up over and over, of me thinking I was better than them, too good for them? Didn’t they know I wasn’t better than anybody? Couldn’t they see I thought of myself as less than everybody?

Now, with a lifetime of experience and a greater acceptance of myself, I can look back at all of these people, starting with Walter, and see what they saw. See that they couldn’t know the insecurities I walked with inside me. All they could see was my privilege, the ways in which I had so much more than they thad, or thought they had.

And, when I am honest with myself, I can see also, that maybe, in some of these instances, my feelings towards them were shaped by my unperceived privilege as well. Certainly this was true with Walter.

By the time Walter came to school, I’d had enough experiences to begin developing an unconscious understanding of all that made me different from my peers. I knew it wasn’t just that I was taller, bigger, more developed than everyone around me, or even that it was because my family structure was different from theirs. Some part of me sensed, though wasn’t consciously aware that being Black was part of the equation. It would be years before I would start to consciously notice that when people just saw me as me - forgot, even momentarily, that I was Black - I was always better off. Yet, I think in my young, unconscious mind, some of my fear of Walter was rooted in the only thing he and I shared, being Black.

Walter was a shining beacon of Blackness. His chocolate skin screamed it out in the sea of creamy faces. Not only that, but he seemed to fit every negative stereotype of what we had all seen as Black - rough, shabby, impulsive, violent and full of bravado. I think some part of me feared him shining his Black light on me - reminding others that I was Black, and allowing them to think that one thing made me more like him than like them.

And yet, now, as I look back, as I write this, I realize that Walter and I shared more than ancestors from the same continent. We had both been shaped by the way our worlds had reacted to our ancestors and to us for having them. We were both full of false bravado, full of the need to assert a place for ourselves in a world that seemed to constantly remind us that we were too different to really belong. Interestingly, when I think about it with a lifetime of experience behind me, I think it’s sad that Walter and I were separated by our similarities instead of united by them.

If he hadn’t seen my privilege, or if I had seen it - I wonder if we could have helped each other instead of hurting ourselves.

1 comment:

Dr. Bels1dus said...

Wow, very good. I would like to hear more about the duality of privileged which seems to create more innerconflict. For instance, you may see your skin (at least in one time in our history) as a privilege, but there is the gender privilege thing to consider. Walter may have been seen a the dangerous negro due to his skin tone by society at large, but his male privileged fueled his thinking on a subconscious level that he could take on a girl and beat her to a pulp just because she is light and alright. Now I know as a child he was really striking out at the colonization imposed on all of us throughout the diaspora; but he as a boy was still trained to think that the best way to take a girl down a peg is to over power her physically and take her down mentally.