Acknowledging my Privilege

This little girl was lucky enough to be adopted on the day of her birth on August 28th, 1993. The woman she has become today considers herself one of the luckiest people in the world. Born in the valley of San Bernardino to a birthmother suffering from drug addiction, homelessness, and poverty, her story of privilege began the moment she took her first breath.

My name is Kate, and my entire life I have known both privilege and suffering. I won’t bore you with too many details of my suffering, as everyone comes to know suffering in one form or another as they grown and learn. At least not in this post. I am here today to talk about what my white privilege looks like to me. It starts with that boyish little girl in the photo (feel free to laugh, she would have too). That little girl never once had to worry about where her next meal was coming from, whether or not she would have a roof over her head, or how she would get to school. She grew up in a place where women can go to school. That little girl never had to worry about the pronunciation of her name being butchered by her teachers (Well – except my last name. No one ever seemed to get that right—or understand why I had an Italian last name). That girl never had to navigate learning a new language in school, or have a language imposed on her in her socialization process. That little girl never had to worry about an unsafe walking environment around her school or even in her neighborhood. That girl never had to worry about getting shot by the police when she was innocently walking with a hoodie on. As she got older, rather than worrying about “where am I going to do homework tonight?” or “who will help me with my schoolwork?” this little girl was probably worrying about which sports team to join or what her peers thought of her. This little girl never had to leave home and uproot her life to an entirely new place so her parents could find work. By the time she graduated High School she probably came to know maybe 5 (MAX 10 – the fact that I don’t know anymore says something in itself) people of color in her community.

Although I grew up in a house with six other kids, all struggling in one form or another (addictions, unexpected pregnancies, arrests) there was plenty of love to go around and support for me to make it into college. I received a substantial financial aid due to my community service and grades, but I never had to take out loans to attend my undergraduate private liberal arts college (Google “Hobart and William Smith HWS – it’s practically fuckin’ Hogwarts. I am so very lucky). I also never had to face discrimination for my college acceptance or my employment. Even though I started legally working when I was 15 years old, my father, who has sort of a “rags to riches” story – taught me the importance of hard work from a very young age (I say legally because he put me in his factory to work under the table even before I was 15 – insert cry laughing emoji). So, I have worked to have some of my own money for a long time. Nonetheless, I was fully supported, financially and emotionally, by my parents during college and I will fully admit that they still help me in times of need even today.

Had I not gone to undergrad, I would have never gotten my Teaching English Foreign Language certification and would have continued to work in a mall in Syracuse, New York. Turns out that people get pretty pumped when you graduate college – I was able to accumulate almost 1000 dollars in graduation gift money that I put towards traveling to Costa Rica for my TEFL Certificate. If I didn’t get that certificate, or go to HWS, (thanks to my parents) I probably never would have received the Fulbright grant which sent me fully-funded to teach English in Brazil for 9 months. I have managed to self-sustain myself financially since, and now I have joined my other comrades in the pool of student loan debt. Get in, the water’s fine! Needless to say, my story of  white privilege is still relevant to me today, and not a day goes by where I don’t meditate on just how lucky I am to have been born white, English speaking, and to a family that rose from middle to upper middle class as I got older.

I look back today on the very white community that I grew up in and realize just how much I benefitted from the society I grew up in. Given that I “peaced-out” of my hometown at the age of 17, and haven’t lived there for more than a few months since, I can’t really comment on the specifics of the corrupt systems. There is no doubt in my mind that people of color are falsely incarcerated, treated differently by the police, and generally looked down upon. I can say, that our state legislature and legal system is mostly comprised of white men. Little white “Rhody” (Rhode Island). However, I can say that my hometown is a cesspool of racism, classism, homophobia, and general white hatred for people who are not like them. Have you ever seen the Stepford Wives? At times, the neighborhood I grew up in reminds me of that movie. Or maybe it’s closer to Jersey Shore. I don’t know. Let’s just say that going back home for the holidays is always …fun? – people (especially my family) get pretty mad when I discuss anything pertaining to social justice with them or challenge them to rethink their morals. I once had a guy I was dating leave me alone at a bar because I called him racist. That was neat.

Hobart and William Smith, although it looks like Hogwarts, was also another white-dominated campus. I never really looked beyond the scope of my little white self and community service until I got involved with a Theatre for Social Justice group (called Mosaic) and took a very moving service-learning course. This group was small but diverse. We spent 6 hours a week together, three of which were dialogic in nature where we would write the pieces we would perform and three of which were rehearsal time. In those dialogues I learned so much about the black and Hispanic experience at Hobart and just how unfair the university (and overall society) system was to students of color.  I italicize about because I learned about them, but I have never and will never have to live these experiences. For example, I will never have a professor look at me when discussing a difficult topic like slavery and expect me to speak on behalf of “my people” (A Hispanic girl, who had dark skin because she was Dominican, reflected on this topic a lot, to which to other members of the groups agreed with and related too).

I never had problems with getting club recognition on campus or faced issues with getting funding. I never had to worry about being socially ostracized at school parties or events – I never had to worry about going to an all-white fraternity party (which was essentially every fraternity). I didn’t have to fear social spaces – I didn’t even realize my privilege there. I had heard a few obviously ignorant [insert photo of confederate flag in a dormroom here] heard people say “the barn [a place for culture clubs like Caribbean Council to have parties] is for black people – to which I told them “no, it isn’t” – but in reality that construction of social space was actually made and being perpetuated by white students like them.  It wasn’t until my Mosaic colleagues pointed out the very clear distinction between white and colored spaces on campus that I finally began to think and question (Bless their patient, giving, beautiful hearts for not giving up on us ignorant white folk) the status quo and really dig deeper into my own privilege. I never had to worry about the color of my skin in the several internship and job interviews I went into. I have never felt exhausted by having to explain injustices in our systems over and over and over again because few white people will listen or help to explain the systematic inequalities that are present in our society.  Nope. I was always shrouded in a protective cloak of privilege, and continue to be today. Whereas I have the option to take these injustices off of my mind – people of minority background do not have the luxury of simply stepping out of their life and their day-to-day lived experience . And this is why I refuse to ignore my cloak of privilege. Nope. It’s not going into the wardrobe, I won’t hide it, and I won’t hide the fact that there is always more for me to learn as I have never lived a life without this privilege.

My desire to help and use my cloak of privilege extends simply helping at a rally, making posters, writing a letter about injustices, or any other stereotypical “social justice warrior” activity you can muster up. I seek instead to empower those who are not as privileged as me to feel empowered and to have their voice heard. We need more dialogue around social justice issues and less white fragility.  We need less white defensiveness, and less white people throwing energy into saying anything they can in order to not be perceived as racist (or _______-ist- sexist, classist, ect). In Mosaic, one of the hardest things for me to do was admit to being racist – racism can take any form and some people (including myself) perceive inaction as racism. So yeah, we [white people, people of privilege] are pretty much all racist if we aren’t living our lives being critical of the problems unfolding in front of us. Once I was able to acknowledge and admit that I indeed have potential to be racist, and admit my privilege as a white person, I felt empowered to do more. Once I stopped being butthurt about someone questioning the fact that I was racist and not all-knowing in terms of SJ issues, I was able to truly realize my role in social justice activism. Only when I became comfortable with handling the uncomfortable conversations was I actually able to make an impact. In that sense, acknowledge our privilege is part of the path to constructing a mind more apt to handle the complications and injustices of life today. Yes, this means I piss off my family. Yes, this might mean I lose friends. Yes, I might be uncomfortable – but nothing I feel could ever come even close to the lived experiences of those who are treated unjustly by our society today. To me, the slight discomfort I or the other person might experience is worth having the difficult conversation. For me, addressing injustices takes its strongest form in my teaching. As a teacher, I hope to not only make my students knowledgeable about injustices in society, but empower them , to make them feel heard and understood, and be a facilitator of the language they need in order to be heard by others. For this reason, I try to make social justice principles relevant to everything I do not only in my teaching, but also in my day to day life.

Kathryn DePietro

One Response to “Acknowledging my Privilege

  • Wow, Kate! Great reflection. If my book ever gets published, I’d like to publish this piece [of course if you’re OK with it and anonymously]. And the others’ as well. You’re such a great group that I feel grateful everyday teaching this class.

    I was with Sarah after the class and she said she was surprised [and glad] to see how as a class you were very open to share. Thank you for this reflection!

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