I recently returned from 10 days in Costa Rica, and before writing about the trip itself (which I will do very soon after I’m done with this one) I want to address something that happened before we left.
I told a friend of mine that we were leaving the country for a few days. I was feeling awkward and embarrassed about this, since I’ve hardly been working this year and my partner and I can in no way afford to take an international trip with our two children. So I told her the truth, which is that my mom paid for us to go so that we could all be together around the holidays, and more importantly, so that we could visit my brother and sister-in-law, whom I’m very close to and who currently live in Costa Rica.
When I told my friend this, I acknowledged that I am a white privileged brat as a way of expressing my embarrassment about the fact that my mom was paying for us to go on this trip. My friend, who is a Latina woman with a Black husband and two Black children, was absolutely astounded by my level of privilege. Her first response was, “Jesus fucking Christ! How do I get adopted by your family?” She expressed her frustration about the fact that she and her husband would never be able to give their children opportunities like these, and that she couldn’t share in my joy because they never have and never will have that kind of support from their families. She described to me how hard each of them work, and wanted me to keep in mind that a lot of people work their asses off and are still never able to do things like take their kids abroad.
So let me first loudly say, the “work hard and you can achieve anything” mantra is bullshit. If you are perpetuating that idea you should fucking stop it, or work your ass off to find a way for everyone to have access to the opportunities you have.
The privileges I have and the fact that my mom could afford to pay for us to go are a result of the wealth of my grandfather. On more than one occasion when I’ve tried to talk to family members about the unfair advantages in our family, they have responded with, “But he worked hard for everything he had!” Which he did! He worked very hard! He was not born into money. But having privilege does not necessarily mean you don’t and/or haven’t worked hard. AND, my grandfather was a straight white man (who also happened to be tall, attractive, able-bodied and neuro-typical) who started his career in the 1940s. So while he may not have been born with money, he was born with privilege and opportunities that others (who also worked hard) simply did not have. All of my privilege is a direct result of his success, which is a product of his hard work and ambition, and still a direct result of his skin color and gender. These things are not mutually exclusive. No one is saying people with privilege are lazy.
This kind of family wealth is one of the biggest factors of economic inequality in this country. As a person who has had this wealth passed down and shared with me based on absolutely no merits of my own, I am the very definition of white privilege.
If there was anything hurtful about the conversation with my friend, it was the fact that she felt she had to remind me to be aware that not everyone is as fortunate as I am. Don’t you know who I am? I thought. I live my life constantly aware of the inequity and injustice in our society. I think about it every single day and try to find ways of combatting it, one of which being the very simple (but somehow incredibly difficult for most people) act of acknowledging that I have privilege others don’t have and that it’s un-fucking-fair.
Once I had some time to process the things she said and come out of my deep well of white guilt (never helpful) this conversation triggered, I realized that these were things my friend was feeling that had very little to do with me personally. I know she knows me well enough to know that I am aware of my privilege (although reminders are always good for me too). She just needed to express her feelings about how unjust it is that some of us are born with economic advantages and some of us are not. And I don’t get to shut down and curl into a ball at the bottom of the white guilt well because someone expresses things that are hard to hear. That is the epitome of white fragility. What I need to do is listen with love and understanding. When a friend who is also a person of color is expressing frustration about this kind of injustice, that is my job. Listen with love and understanding.
Since this conversation, I have felt slightly less sure of our friendship (which will pass with time I hope), and still have a little bit of worry that she now thinks less of me. But at the end of it she also said, “I was never this honest until I met you,” which I took to mean that she feels safe enough to express her feelings about something very personal for both of us, and I love and appreciate her for doing so. Those of us who are willing to honestly look at and talk about this stuff will continue working through it together, and we have to start with tough conversations in order to make change (do NOT misunderstand me. Talking alone changes nothing. But talking and looking inward is a critical step toward making actual change.) A redistribution of resources, a dismantling of white privilege, or at the very least the fact that honest communication leads to an opening of hearts and minds.
To my fellow white people who were born with economic privilege (and yes I know there are also black people and people of color born with economic privilege, but let’s be honest about the fact that it’s FAR more common for white people): Listen. Stop perpetuating the idea that your economic privilege came from hard work and some sort of moral superiority, and that those who struggle just need to work harder (the old “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” argument). This concept is a slap in the face to all the people who work hard to overcome what they were born without. Listen to people who come from different backgrounds than you. Privilege does not make you a bad person. It has nothing to do with that. What can make you a bad person is refusing to acknowledge that privilege exists, or acknowledging it and doing nothing. And by the way, we all have privilege. Not just white people, not just men. Start by acknowledging what privileges you have because that acknowledgment is the first step toward tearing it down.
Image from Quinn Dombrowski’s flickr account