Is Privilege Offensive?

privilegeI experience privilege. I am college educated. I have a steady, salaried job. I am heterosexual. I have a house and a mortgage. Two cars. Two kids. One dog. I am able bodied. My husband and I are married. Both of my parents are still alive and well. I have health insurance. I have privilege.And, as a young woman of color, I also experience oppression.

While at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity, I engaged in wonderfully challenging and critically affirming discussions over the course of 5 full days (I'm talking 8:00am-10:00pm!) about race, ethnicity, power, privilege, oppression, advocacy, and activism. I love browsing the exhibitor area of conferences because it helps me to build my toolbox for Teaching Diversity in a Diversity Free Zone. One of the exhibitors was for the White Privilege Conference (which I fully intended on going to next year). They were selling "Got Privilege?" shirts and sweatshirts, of which I happily purchased two - one for my friend and one for me.

"Got privilege?"

My friend wore his shirt to work, a rather liberal elementary school in a wealthy suburb of Boston. A few of his co-workers had seen the shirt slogan before or had attended the White Privilege Conference themselves and knew what it was all about. Some of his co-workers even owned the shirt, too. While waiting in the lunch line, my friend was confronted by a co-worker of European heritage who read his shirt and loudly said, "Got privilege? Of course you can wear that! What a double standard! If I wore that, I wouldn't hear the end of it!"

"Huh?," asked my Puerto Rican friend. "What do you mean?" just hoping to get his helping of school-lunch chicken nuggets and potato puffs.

The next few minutes were quite ugly. The co-worker proceeded to tell him how offensive his shirt was, how she didn't think that his offensive shirt had any place in an educational setting.

I believe my friend replied with "Are you kidding me?"

The rest of the story finds the white person going to different groups of people, pointing at my friend, and angrily shaking her head with her eyebrows saying, "Can you believe he would wear a shirt like that?" from across the room.

Thankfully, there are aware people in those groups who told responded with, "There isn't anything wrong with his shirt."

Privilege. Is it really an ugly word? Why is it so difficult for people to realize and accept that they have privilege? Does having privilege mean people are bad? Selfish? Close-minded?

In my experience, it is just the opposite. Recognizing privilege, owning up to your privilege and then actively identifying ways in which we institutionally disempower those without privilege gives us tools in our toolbox. It helps us to call attention to ways in which we play into systems of oppression. It awakens our sense of responsibility and turns on the voice in our hearts to call for change.

The quote on the back of one of the "Got Privilege?" shirts reads: "If you are neutral in a situation of injustice, you have chosen to side with the oppressor." This is important to understanding how we can build an Anti-Racist family, community, school, etc. By understanding the benefits we experience as a result of our privilege, we can begin to understand those who are oppressed by our privilege. Throughout the posts and comments on Anti-Racist Parent, there are many of us who find ourselves at a loss for words when we see someone oppressing another. And, many of us have been on the receiving end of those hurtful remarks, insensitive comments, or complete lack of acknowledgment. But, have we actively thought of our own ways in which we oppress others?

As parents and educators, I believe there is a fine line between understanding systems of privilege/oppression and guilt. I do not feel guilty for having two living parents. I do not feel guilty for working towards home ownership. I do not feel guilty for being in a heterosexual marriage. I do not feel guilty for having two children and one dog. I do not feel guilty for having 5 more years to pay off my graduate student loans. Having privilege does not equal feeling guilty. However, owning the fact that I experience privilege forces me to open my eyes to the ways in which systems of oppression and institutionalized -isms keep others from achieving. "Knowledge is power" and knowing my privilege calls me to find ways to support humanity that is valued. Peggy McIntosh, who wrote the influential piece "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack", discussed the importance of recognizing and analyzing the types of advantages Whites have simply for having white skin (or, 'peach', as my daughter calls it). In my life, I believe the same goes for the other ways (class, sexual identity, marriage status, education, ownership, health, etc) in which I experience privilege as a woman of color. We all carry around these unspoken Member ID Cards that allow us into these exclusive systemized clubs. But, do we belong to these clubs at the expense of others? At the expense of another's humanity?

As parents and as anti-racists, we must actively participate in a process where every human has a right to not only yearn for life, liberty, and happiness but to actually achieve it. For those looking for practical ways to educate ourselves, our children, and our students, I came across a great website, Understanding Prejudice, that has activities and resources for many age levels. Many of their tools can be put into your "diversity toolbox!"

So, is privilege offensive? How do you teach your child about privilege in your life?

What Am I First?

What am I first?by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Liza Talusan (originally posted on Anti-Racist Parent)

My children seem to have a knack for asking me really deep, thought-provoking questions at the most inconvenient times. Usually this is when we are racing out the door, late for school/work/day care. This time, it happened on the way to driving my sister, a kulingtan musician, to teach at a cultural school in Boston.

“Mommy, what am I?” says my 4 1/2 year old daughter, Joli, from the backseat of the car.

“What do you mean, ‘what are you?’” I ask, as I glance into my rear view mirror for a hint of meaning on her face.

“Like, what kind of kid am I? Okay, Filipino. But, then… then.. what’s the other kind of kid I am?”

“Puerto Rican? Do you mean Puerto Rican and Filipino? Daddy is Puerto Rican. Mommy is Filipino. So, that makes you Puerto Rican AND Filipino.” “But, Mommy, what am I FIRST? Am I Puerto Rican FIRST or am I Filipino FIRST?”

“You’re BOTH first,” I reply, with echos of my mentors on biracial identity models and child development theorists prominently ringing in my ears.

“Will Daddy get mad if I want to be Filipino FIRST?” says Joli in a voice barely loud enough for me to hear her.

“Honey, you are not something FIRST, you are both ALL THE TIME.” “Well, don’t tell Daddy, okay, Mommy? But, I’m going to be Filipino first.”

(cue my breaking anti-racist heart!)

With nearly all of my friends and extended family members identifying as biracial or multiracial — but being neither of those myself — I am very sensitive to situations that individuals find themselves in when it comes to the “choosing” question. I knew that external influences would eventually lead my children to ask the questions. I just didn’t think one of them would ask me questions at age 4 1/2!

Joli seemed fairly happy with my assertion that she is both all the time. I engaged my husband that night in conversations about where she might be getting these messages. I’m quite confident that my family — made up of all interracial couples and children — isn’t giving her the message that she must choose or prioritize. In her diverse pre-school, I have to imagine that they are not giving her those message either. Dora? Sesame Street (given Deesha’s recent post)? Or is it some of those awful Disney shows that we allow her to watch, but only with a parent watching with her?

As a newly affirmed Anti-Racist Parent, I still can’t help but wonder how much influence or environmental control we really have in our children’s lives. I truly admire Joli’s inquisitiveness and maturity about her complex identity, yet it was hard to hear it from a child of an “anti-racist parent.” Since that day, I’ve grown more aware of Joli’s comments about differences she sees in her world. Just the other night as I was brushing Joli’s and Jada’s hair, Joli made the comment that Jada had “prettier hair” (4-year old interpretation: Joli has thick curly hair like my husband; Jada has wavy, loose hair like me). While much of this can be the typical sibling rivalry, I do read into it as a reflection of her growing awareness of her multiracial identity.

I’ve been more aware of Joli sticking up for other people and other lifestyles. The other day, when reading a bedtime story of a family with a mother, father and child, Joli said to me, “You know, Mom. Not everyone’s family is like that family. Some kids have two moms, some kids have no moms, some kids have two dads, some have different types of skin…. that’s important to know.”

(cue my cheering anti-racist heart!)

I have to remind myself that raising my own awareness, that of my family, and that of others is why I do the work I do — why I live the way I live. There are moments of great heartache, moments of great joy; but there are always opportunities for learning and understanding.

And, that is why anti-racist parenting — whether as parents of children, of a community, or of our world — is not a means to an end but a process full of life and meaning. It’s a process that is fluid and malleable. It’s a commitment, a lifestyle, a mantra, a prayer. It is both an outlook and an outreach. Times when I am uncomfortable confronting a racist joke, disabling a racist conversation, or challenging a racist decision, I am awakened to the fact that I am my children’s best teacher. They will make decisions based on what they have seen me do, ways that they have seen me act, and words they have heard me say. If I am to be their best teacher, I need to also be their best student.