That Thing, I Got It Bad
"How do you know that? Did you learn that...on the streets? *Covers mouth* I'm sorry..."
"Oh, it's okay. I did learn it on the streets. On the ghetto, in fact."
(Talking head) "It's all about my bonus."
We don't need to look much further than my Fellowship to play one of these things is not like the other. There were twelve students in the undergraduate program and six in the graduate program. I was the only White person in the Fellowship. Sometimes no one notices or calls attention to it, and sometimes it's very obvious.
I wrote about the times when it's a bit more uncomfortable for me to be the only White person in the room here. Truthfully, I don't think the other students notice it as much as I do. It's not entirely my fault; I don't feel hyper-aware of my race on purpose. But for a person who grew up with everyone looking just like me to be thrust into a world where everyone looked differently than I did, I sometimes still marvel over the diversity around the classroom, the school, and the city as a whole.
I'm not, like, horrendously bad at having and not recognizing my privilege, like some people. But for sure for sure for sure I am still learning how to have it and wield it and use it and reign it in, especially when I'm in spaces that aren't meant for me. (But to get there, I had to recognize that there even were spaces that weren't meant for me, and understand the reasons to have a space like that. They didn't teach me that growing up. They didn't really teach me that at John Jay, either - at least, not formally.)
I am much better than I was, and I like to think that I am better than some of my White counterparts. That does not mean I am infallible. I make mistakes. I say shitty things and have shitty thoughts. I complain about people talking in theatres and silently critique the way people dress for shows. "That's a shitty thing to do." I know that. That's a Connecticut thing to do. (Did you see the links I sourced? Is there anything more bougie than NPR??)
With some things, I've loosened up a bit. Other things I fully recognize as privileged thoughts or behavior, and the back of my neck grows warm, but I'm still pretty sure I'm in the right.
Privilege does that. It makes you blind. There are thoughts and behaviors that I have and do that reflect on my upbringing far more than the way I look that I am blind to every day. One woman of color wrote on the privilege White people have:
Had I been white, my white privilege would have said to her: “Give me what I want. Don’t ask questions.” And she, in her white body that knows white privilege – even if she does not understand it – would have complied. I have no doubt that had I been white, I would have received the bottle of water, whether she thought she had given it to me or not, with a smile. No disrespect. No questions asked.
I have that kind of privilege. And you may have it, too.
You gotta fight it. And that means making callout ePortfolios for yourself like this.
The Care and Keeping of Privilege
When I first began doing this work, I was terrified that I'd say the wrong thing and inadvertently offend someone. I knew there was something up with me (spoiler alert: it was the "I literally did not know demographic/sociographic/economic hardship until I was pretty much an adult" scent that radiated from my pores) that wouldn't sit right with people, so I kept pretty quiet in my work; especially when it came to talking about myself.
Sometimes that wasn't all that bad. People generally made assumptions about me, and I never corrected them. I was a social worker for some people and someone who had a history of substance use with others. (One of my very first mentors taught me that ambiguity with titles was okay. He was a researcher. People called him their "drug counselor." He didn't correct them. Why muck up the relationship with labels?)
When we trained for the Fellowship, though, the silence flew out the window. I'd be working with people with criminal justice histories and the demographics that come with the territory every day for months. Most - if not all - of the other students in the Fellowship had some sort of "relatability" they could market to our clients. I didn't have that. It terrified me.
"What do I do if they won't talk to me?" I was frantic for some sort of rule book. What do I do if they don't like me? Why would they like me? What am I bringing to the table? I wouldn't like me. I wouldn't listen to me for anything and I wouldn't open up to me. These kids won't open up to me, either.
Some of the men who trained us offered feedback to me. "You're not like them," he said, kindly, as if to soften the blow that I was irrevocably different. You're not like us. You'll never be like us. "But you can offer them something. You may not know what they went through before. But you'll know things they need to know. You know about school. You know about admissions and academics and how to write. You bring different skills to the table. That's why they'll listen."
The other students in my Fellowship nodded. Some of the frenzied buzzing in my ears died down. It made a lot of sense. He continued. "Show sincerity. Don't pretend like you know what they went through if you don't. They'll smell that from a mile away. It's okay to say that no, you don't know about that particular thing, but you do know about this."
I've done this work for a while now. I get better with every moment I put into it. No one has ever refused to talk with me because I was too different. Everyone I've worked with has been incredibly respectful. It's part of why I keep going back.
Don't worry. The anxiety you have about working with people who are different will go away. (And if it doesn't, well, fine - welcome to the world of recognizing privilege.)
I'm a White Person. How Do I Know I'm Doing Well?
Or they tease you. Because they like you. It's that simple.