I was ten when I reached my life’s peak (I’m kind of kidding but I’m also kind of not kidding). I stood on stage for so long at my elementary school graduation that my feet started to hurt. My time on stage began with my valedictorian speech and ended with Papi meeting me at the side steps of the stage because I couldn’t carry all of my trophies and certificates all by myself. Talk about Adelle at the 54thAnnual Grammy Awards.
When I say “killin,” you say “it.” KILLIN.
I remember preparing for my speech. I sat at the one massive Windows computer we had in our classroom during a lunch or some special period that I was allowed to miss to work on my speech. It took me a couple of days to type the speech I had originally drafted with pencil and paper. I typed with my two pointer fingers, you know, like a little girl from 2000 who couldn’t even imagine what technology would look like eighteen years later. I tried my best to focus on typing while two or three of my teachers hovered over me saying things like “wow, otra nena Latina y bilingue getting valedictorian.” They were so proud of me because out of all of the fifth graders in my elementary school, I scored the highest scores on the New York statewide exams and a perfect score on Language Arts. I was proud of myself too because five years before I didn’t speak a word of English and now I was sitting at a computer typing a speech that I was going to recite in front of my entire graduating class, my teachers, principal and their families.
In a historically underserved Brooklyn neighborhood, my school did not have the adequate resources to serve all of their children. What I remember most though were the teachers who worked every day to ensure that we all stood tall and proud no matter where we came from. My teachers taught me to be proud of my culture, my language and myself. With this pride, I graduated high school and college even though the road to both of those places wasn’t always easy. I was taught to see beauty in a neighborhood where parents didn’t believe in letting their children have sleepovers at a friend’s house or riding their bikes around the block. “It wasn’t worth taking that chance” is how my father replies when we laugh about how I would rollerblade three feet away from him on our block and he would already be saying “ya pamela, regresa.” My neighborhood was alive with music, talent, potential, rich conversation and fun but also drugs, violence and poverty.
I learned the word “determined” in my first-grade classroom. We had five new vocabulary words on our vocabulary chart and my vision tunneled in on that one word. I remember thinking that’s what I wanted to always be. For a really long time I thought my determination alone got me to becoming the valedictorian in fifth grade and later on in life, I thought my determination alone got me to my first day of college. I did not understand why so many of my friends were not in college with me. I believed they had not been determined enough. I believed they didn’t try hard enough. But then, my first year of college, I learned the word “privilege.”
When I began to critically analyze society and myself, I learned that many different factors impacted my life and people’s perception of me. I began to understand the privilege behind my light skin and something as simple as my experience with daily family dinners. I began to understand that my determination in isolation was not why I was able to pursue higher education and social/financial mobility unlike many of the people in my childhood neighborhood.
The more I learned about my privilege, the more I wanted to use it to ensure that communities like my own were set up to excel rather than fail. Understanding my privilege gave me a lens that prevented me from judging the people around me and understand the opportunities that I have had that others didn’t. It helped me understand that the challenges so many of my peers faced had little to do with their willingness and everything to do with narrow minded perceptions society had of them.
The more I learned about privilege in academic spaces, the more I also came across people who did not have the same response as me. This has been especially true when speaking about “white privilege,” a concept which clearly states that being white is an advantage. I recently came across an article titled “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege.” In this article, Tal Fortgang writes his critiques on the concept of asking people to “check their privilege” and takes the time to analyze his ancestry. He writes about his Jewish ancestry that included fleeing Nazis, extreme health conditions in concentration camps and sacrifices his father made to work and get to where he is today. Throughout the articles Fortgang recognizes the privilege that was passed down to him but also urges people the following:
“But far more important for me than his attributes was the legacy he sought to pass along, which forms the basis of what detractors call my “privilege,” but which actually should be praised as one of altruism and self-sacrifice. Those who came before us suffered for the sake of giving us a better life. When we similarly sacrifice for our descendants by caring for the planet, it’s called “environmentalism,” and is applauded. But when we do it by passing along property and a set of values, it’s called “privilege.” (And when we do it by raising questions about our crippling national debt, we’re called Tea Party radicals.) Such sacrifice of any form shouldn’t be scorned, but admired.”
Time and time again, I have come across people like Fortgang. People who believe that checking their privilege is erasing their history and the struggles that existed before their success. People who do not recognize that different people face different opportunities. I worry that people will stop checking their privilege because of interpretations like Fortgang’s which are more common than not. I worry that people will stop listening at the sound of the word “privilege” because they feel offended. I worry that people will begin defending their story before truly understanding it.
Being privileged is having an advantage. Some of us are made up of more advantages than others. Being privileged does not erase determination or drive although it does elevate your efforts. Privilege also does not erase your story. My experience with white privilege does not erase my determination. It does not erase my Latinidad and the experiences that come with that. It does not erase the sacrifices my grandmother made when she left her country. It does not erase the sacrifices my father made when he did the same and then again with me, a five-year old daughter that hardly knew him. It does not erase my struggles with trauma and immigration or learning a new language. It does not erase my bad-ass fifth grade graduation experience. What recognizing my privilege has done is made me a better person. It has allowed me to better understand the opportunities I’ve had that have brought me to where I am and where I am not today. In this new year, as you continue to figure out how to be better, start with checking you privilege. The right way.
An example of how not to respond when somebody asks you to check your privilege.
An example of somebody who gets it.