“It seems to me that obliviousness … is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.” – Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”
I had my first encounter with white socioeconomic privilege before I had the terms to explain why it had upset me. When I found out I was accepted to Pomona College and at very little cost to me, many of my loved ones were proud of my accomplishments and my continued educational journey. All except for one: my best friend. He comes from a very well-off, educated family who provided him with things to which I never had access—his own car, a generous monthly allowance, and legacy admission at the well-known, equally prestigious college he was set to attend. That said, I was confused about why, with these immense opportunities he had and our apparently equivalent academic capabilities, he blew up at me, saying it was unfair that I, a low-income student of color, got to go to an elite school for close to free. I am finishing my second year at this incredible institution, and yet I am still struggling to cope with the implications of his words, just as many underprivileged students do when stigmatized as a result of affirmative action debates.
However, I’m oddly thankful for this experience, because it has made me acknowledge my own privilege in many intricate ways. Upon returning home for Winter Break, he and I got into some heated arguments about the movie Django: Unchained. As a film major, he found it to be a well-crafted, brilliant piece of work. Being a sociology major from a liberal school densely populated with social activists, I couldn’t help but critique the social implications of this film, using the information I had learned in my classes. It was then that I realized the reason we couldn’t find common ground was because we were coming from completely different backgrounds, we had different worldviews, and I, too, was coming from a place of privilege.
He wasn’t the only person with whom I would engage in controversial discussions about society. I would find myself ranting or sometimes even preaching to others about things I saw as huge issues, whether it was their actions or someone else’s who prompted it. But I realized that what I—and many of my peers—was doing was just as unfair. Much like it was unfair of him to attack me from his privileged stance, it was unfair for me to attack him and all others I have encountered for not understanding that there are real issues that affect everyone in ways that some may not ever have the opportunity to discuss, let alone at Pomona for free. Thus, I started to check my private liberal arts institution privilege.
You see, it’s easy to tell other people that they’re speaking from a place of unearned privilege. It’s easy to condemn ignorance, racism, sexism, or political incorrectness. But what is tough is realizing that you, the student who worked hard to get access to Pomona or any of the 5Cs, come from a place of privilege that is separate from your race, class or gender. What lies underneath your ability to even call out those with white, cisgendered, economic privilege is the fact that you were lucky enough to be sat down in an environment five days a week where you engage in deep, heated discussion with open-minded people who are eager to share ideas about how to fix our society’s problems related to power.
People say that the first step to fixing inequalities is to acknowledge and discuss privilege. I always have been passionate about education, especially upon coming to Pomona and realizing that getting an education is not an equal opportunity. I argue that, just like all other social issues, we should focus on creating equal access to information and knowledge, not for the sake of the fields to which we matriculate, but for the wellbeing of society.
To get there, we first need to recognize our privilege and allow that to frame our discussions with people inside and outside of elite colleges. How can we, for instance, expect education to change if the history and inner workings of oppression are written and spoken about in jargon that only those coming from educational institutions have the capability to deconstruct? Second, we need to realize that in any type of privilege, it is not the fault of the individual, but rather a fault in our structures. Inequality is what leads us to think that others have unfair or unearned advantages. The fact that my friend hadn’t engaged in the discussions about the importance of race, class, and gender issues across the world in the same way I am is not his fault.
I understand that not all elite schools that produce filmmakers, writers, doctors, and lawyers are like Pomona, nor should they be. But perhaps there should be a standard of openness and willingness to discuss social issues in all schools and majors. Perhaps instead of arguing about who has what privilege, or condemning those without, we can work toward ensuring that everyone gets an opportunity to understand the history and the impact of having or not having such privilege.