It breaks my heart to see how divided people in the US are becoming over issues of race, gender, sexuality and other such topics. I was born and grew up in the 1970s and 80s. I saw a lot of progress being made towards people seeing each other as human beings. Looking at the individual instead of the group. Now I know not everyone was joining in on that bandwagon, but we were making progress. Things were getting better. And this is not just the opinion coming from a white, straight, cisgender woman.
For those of you who don’t know my background, I was born in poverty. I was the product of a one-night-stand and my mother moved back in with her parents so they could help raise me. My mom was an an abusive alcoholic and we barely subsisted on my grandfather’s social security income. My mother was denied welfare despite the fact she had a small child at home. Ethnically I’m German, Polish and either Russian or Ukrainian, so technically I’m classified as “white,” although I’ve had people ask me if I was part Asian on numerous occasions because of my skin tone (it has a slight yellowish tinge), and my bone structure. I have no way of knowing but that could be thanks to the influence of Genghis Kahn when he left behind a lot of his DNA in Eastern Europe.
Regardless, I’m somehow automatically privileged because of how pale my skin is. Yet growing up, I didn’t feel the privilege. We were poor. Most of my clothes were donations from our local church, or bought from a second hand store. I recall standing in line in order to get a grocery bag full of “government cheese,” flour, butter, and powdered milk so we wouldn’t starve. Sometimes we got lucky and they included honey. To this day I think I could have been taller if I’d had proper nutrition as a child.
I had to fight tooth and nail in order to get financial aid to go to college. We were too poor for me to qualify for a student loan, so I had to apply as early as possible in order to have a chance at federal and state grants. Even then the money was never enough and I held down three part-time jobs in order to make my way through school and finally earn my bachelor’s degree. Yes, my skin may be white, and I even made good grades, but it didn’t help at all in that situation.
Once I graduated, I had a very difficult time finding work as a teacher in Chicago. I was outright told that I was “too white.” I was trained to teach the younger children, but I had to settle for taking a position as an 8th grade science teacher because no one wanted to hire the white girl.
When I eventually moved out to Colorado, I ran into serious competition for teaching and substitute teaching positions so I had to change careers, and go back to school. Long story short, I taught myself HTML, learned how to make web sites, and got my foot in the door at a tech company in order to pay my way through earning my masters degree. Being employed full-time while being a full-time grad student was probably the hardest thing I ever did. The stress was evident in the fact that I actually started losing my hair (it grew back, thankfully!).
My point to sharing all that is this: Yes, I know there are certain privileges I have experienced by being born as a straight, white, cisgender person. However, that doesn’t negate the fact that I have also known prejudice and discrimination. It doesn’t negate the fact that I have lain in bed crying, wishing I looked different.
When I said earlier that things were getting better, I know that people were still experiencing racism, gender inequality and sexual discrimination. There are always going to be some ignorant, prejudiced assholes in the world. However, things were getting better. From the perspective of a female, I was earning the same as my male counterparts in my tech job, and I am charging as much as my male counterparts for my consulting services these days and no one is trying to negotiate with me to lower my rates just because I’m female. Is there gender inequality in the workplace? Yes, but it has gotten better than it was forty and fifty years ago.
Now, I know don’t know what it’s like to be racially profiled, although I have seen it happen to good friends of mine (which incensed me when I saw it). However I have experienced discrimination because of the color of my skin so, to at least a small degree I can relate, and to a large degree I sympathize. I don’t know why or how people will treat another human differently just because they have more melanin in their skin. It’s never made sense to me. It’s wrong and I think education is still the best way towards improving the situation.
When it comes to discrimination against different sexualities, I know I am out of my depth there. It sickens me that some people will honestly treat others differently just because of who they love and have sex with, or not want sex at all, or want to love many people at once. I might not know what it’s like to be gay or bisexual or pansexual, but I know I don’t view them any differently because of it. To me they are human. Just like all my various friends of varying ethnic backgrounds are human. We’re all human. We all have flaws, we all have unique things about us.
So while I may be part of groups that are considered privileged (white, straight, cisgender), I am also part of (or have been a part of) groups that are discriminated against (poor, not fluent in English – German was my first language, atheist, childfree, and polyamorous.) Please don’t look at me and see my “white” skin and just automatically assume I have all of the privileges. Do I have some? Yeah. I won’t deny that. But it doesn’t mean I haven’t experienced the other side of the fence from time-to-time.
As a follow-on to this, please also consider reading the following blog post as it really spoke to me in terms of well, lots of things: Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person.
What is your opinion on this topic? Do you see all white people as automatically privileged? As a white person have you always felt privileged?