By Mel Mignucci
What’s worse: not checking your privilege, or not being aware of it at all? In talking about privilege at a school so liberal my RAs are called PCs, I’ve come to realize that being aware of your privilege is a privilege unto itself; it is the privilege of having grown up with the ability – the free time, the acumen, the vocabulary – and the circle of influence to consider, instead of dismiss, the experiences of others. It is also the privilege of being acutely aware when you are being an asshole.
So the problem remains: is it worse to know your privilege but not check it, or to not know it at all?
This problem is more than just the intellectual hemming and hawing of a certain (vocal) corner of the internet; it is truly difficult to acknowledge your own privilege without coming off as an asshole – and this includes the privilege of understanding the mechanisms of privilege.
To wit: an argument I had with my boyfriend about his expression of privilege. We had gone to a show one Saturday night where the band Downtown Boys was playing. Their bilingual political punk was angry, sung by morena, ruidosa Victoria Ruiz, and at one point, she led the crowd in a chant of “Fuck you, tall boys!” (You know when you’re a five-foot-flat girl in the second row of the crowd at a show, and a six-foot-one dude steps in front of you to see the band? That’s a tall boy.)
I turned around and noticed my boyfriend, my six-foot-one boyfriend, had left from his spot at the back of the room, and I knew it was because of the chanting – fuck you tall boys, fuck you tall boys. For him, it had become an unsafe space, where he was judged for the way he was born. In that space, I had the privilege of being a short Latina, able not only to understand Ruiz’ lyrics, but also be a member of the population for whom Downtown Boys played. But in having drunk half of a shatterproof 40, I was furious. Furious that he would leave and not confront the space he took up. Furious that he would leave and not acknowledge the fact that he, although tall, had the presence of mind to stand behind the short girls – even the short boys – in a show, not to mosh, not to take up space that didn’t belong to him. I was furious that he did not have the thought to defend himself, mentally, against the accusations hurled against a group he was only on the surface a part of.
Because I had been able to do that, or so I felt. When the guitarist shouted, “Fuck Birthright,” I recoiled, and then realized that yeah, maybe my going on Birthright was a shitty thing to do. But what could I do? I would be going to Israel on Birthright in June with the full presence of mind that I would be pressured from every angle to support the ongoing apartheid state.
But what could I do?
Was I an asshole for going on Birthright? Was my boyfriend an asshole for not confronting his privilege? Was I right to defend myself for going to Israel for free? Was my boyfriend right to leave a space in which he felt uncomfortable?
Whose privilege was checked here, and whose was ignored?
The conclusion we came to from the fight that resulted from this conflict was superficial: ultimately, my boyfriend are two cis white people from affluent homes, but our vocabularies – our abilities to talk about that ultimate privilege, the acknowledgement of privilege – were mismatched. Perhaps he needs to take a gender studies class; perhaps I need to acknowledge that everyone is just trying to do the best they can to not be an asshole. But the fundamental experiences of our lives – vivencias, in Spanish – were different, irreconcilable, engineered to interact with our privileges in fundamentally different ways.
Basically put, privilege comes from experience; the experience of being a woman, of being transgender, of being white, comes with its own privileges that express themselves in different ways. A privilege of being a woman is de facto getting custody of your children. The privilege of being transgender is occupying a space outside of the gender binary, inaccessible to most. And the privilege of being white, well, we all kind of know what that is. But the point is that for every label we use, there are a set of privileges that come with it, and a set of spaces where that privilege is expressed. Is this a good thing? Probably not. But regardless of that, it is important that every privilege is acknowledged, even the ugly ones, and this is what’s not talked about when we talk about privilege.
Mel Mignucci is a college sophomore know-nothing with big dreams and a Twitter account. Tweets @smaallmaan.