*This piece is dedicated to my mother,Terry Hines who passed away October 19, 2012.
[IMAGE. In this photo two women, Sonya Taylor and her motherTerry Hines are leaning in toward the camera . There is a sand, people and a large building in the background. The woman on the right is a brown skinned Black woman. She has short dark hair and large silver hoop earrings. She is smiling. She is wearing an orange shirt and has a cross around her neck. The woman on the right is a dark skinned black woman . She has shoulder length black hair and gold hoop earrings. She is wearing brown sunglasses and has a small blue piercing on the right side of her face just above her lip. She is smiling] I am sitting on my mother’s purple sofa during a holiday visit when I hear her holler to my step-father from the kitchen, “You know Sonie has always been white orientated!” My step-father quickly replied, “That’s okay. Sonya is the smartest person I know.” Now I don’t remember what particularly oddity I had traipsed before her that day that sparked the exchange,but I remember being doubled over in laughter at the sheer absurdity of the dialogue as I yelled back to my step-father, “You definitely need to know more people.”
Even in its ridiculousness, I knew exactly what my mother and her husband were trying to say. “White orientated” was my mother’s way of describing the difference between she and I: a former crack-addicted teen mother and high school dropout versus her master’s degree having, world traveling, poet daughter. To be white orientated was to be educated, to have access to a world my mother often only experienced through my eyes. My mother was in the best way she could, articulating my privilege.
Privilege is a thing that I, as a Black, fat, queer woman focused on social justice, can often forget I possess. Yes, I know what it feels like to be followed through a store simply for being too Black in it, the glare of judgment at the space I take up on a train, or the disgust at the same soft hand of my lovers, but still there are parts of my life where I have had greater access and opportunity than generations of family who have come before me could have ever imagined. This access is why for years my mother insisted I make her doctor’s appointments and business calls. It is why she always had me read the insurance papers before she signed them. I was the gate-keeper to a world she felt incapable of navigating by herself. She knew I spoke a language that could get a manager on the phone, a discount from a clerk, the clear diagnosis and next steps after an examination, the “yes” after she had been told “no” a dozen times. Linguists call this “code-switching,” the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation. While this definition focuses on the dynamics of conversation, I learned code-switching by setting and circumstance. The ability to code switch was a function of my educational privilege and the way I learned to navigate and leverage that privilege to help my mother and my family move through an oppressive society.
In conversations with people just beginning to unpack what professor Peggy MacIntosh calls the Invisible Knapsack of privilege, the most common resistance I hear is, “ How can I have unearned privilege? I have worked my ass off for everything I have.” I get it. It is hard to talk about my educational privilege without talking about the 3 jobs I worked, the homeless shelter I lived in, the one hundred thousand dollars in student loans I racked up to achieve said “privilege.” Absolutely, I worked harder than many could ever imagine to get my degrees, but still, I have to own that many of the opportunities I received in life were not functions of my hard work. They were acts of luck, grace, or timing.
It was pure luck that I was born to a father in the military, which meant from a young age I was immersed in diverse cultures. A random luck of the draw saw to it that I had a 2nd grade teacher who encouraged me to become a voracious reader. It was simple grace that my theatrical antics and performative nature were cultivated and applauded in schools rather than tamped down and punished as is often the case in young Black males. These “breaks” shaped me into the young woman who could adeptly write the essays that earned me the grants that paid for a large chunk of school. I did not earn any of those benefits of my youth and yet, without them, I would have never learned how to “code-switch” well enough to attain middle class mobility.
Today, I live in East Oakland, CA, a ravaged section of a rough city where violence is more routine than mail delivery. I live here because I can have the kind of home I want for a price I can afford. Living here means I can have an in-home office, fireplace, garage, and garden, rather than a small one bedroom in what may be a “nicer” neighborhood. This is not true for many of my neighbors. We share blackness but we do not share educational and economic resources. If I decided to move tomorrow, I could pack my things and go. I would only be losing amenities. But my neighbors are here because “here” is what they can afford and still be able to buy groceries for the kids. It is not about amenities.And even in my complaints, my neighbors tell me that moving here was an upgrade. Here, according to many of them, is better than 5 blocks down the street in the “flats”. Living one block above the “flats” is an accomplishment for much of my community. It means being one block removed from the drive-by shootings and street violence 500 feet away.
Living in this community is an exertion of my privilege because it is rooted in my ability to choose. I am privileged to have the option to leave the neighborhood violence for better manicured lawns and nights without sirens; my mobility is privilege. Once I acknowledged this privilege, I was left with the question What do I do with it? The first thing I needed to do with my class privilege in this community was check it. I needed to be honest about the assumptions I made about the people in my community as a result of my privilege. I needed to face my stereotypes and judgments. I needed to check my superiority complex. In what ways did I think I was more deserving of peace and safety than my neighbors? In what ways had I assumed I was better, smarter, more worthy than them? After honestly investigating how my privilege shaped my perception of my neighbors, I was able to look at ways in which my privilege could serve my neighborhood. This allowed me to start a neighborhood clean-up project with the youth on my block because I had the additional resources to pay kids a small stipend. It meant I was able to walk a neighbor through the appropriate steps log a complaint against a troublesome community member. It meant I was able to value the unique gifts each of the folks on my block brought to the tapestry of our community and work as a partner rather than some sort of savior.
Privilege is a complicated beast. I need not feel guilty for having educational and class privilege. Actually, feeling guilty impedes my ability to use my privilege to empower others. Guilt keeps me from challenging the voices in my head that tell me my privilege is a function only of meritocracy and not inequities in how people are treated in society. My privilege in this Black, fat, queer body can be a bridge to greater access for those in my family, community, world. My mother knew this, many Black families know this and consequently encourage their kids to figure out how to access privilege and how to create doorways for greater equity. If anything, this privilege requires my humility and my stewardship. Never forgetting this is how I honor my marginalized identities. Knowing this does not make me “white orientated.” It just makes me the woman my mother raised me to be. And that, too, is a privilege.
[Image Description: Black and white photograph of two people with their forheads pressed together. The person on the right has dark brown skin and black hair pulled into a bun with flowers around it. The person on the left has very light skin and has light brown hair pulled into a bun. They have a string of white pearls connecting them.]
Thank you for this thought provoking peace. It makes me want to go out into my own East Oakland neighborhood and connect more with my neighbors, to talk more about where we came from, how we got here, and what we want for our community, instead of the latest crimes and lost dogs (not that those aren’t important). Also taking in focusing on humility and stewardship rather than guilt. It can be hard to remember that guilt doesn’t help anyone.