As I close this chapter and turn the page, I felt the need to write a little something about 2017. It has been a good year, with all of its flaws. I am so grateful.
This year has been full of growing experiences, as they all are, but I have been particularly proud of myself over the past twelve months. More so, I have been acutely aware of my privilege and my extraordinary luck in life.
About a month ago, I had a conversation about privilege.
I’ve felt a little wary of the wave of activism that has risen over the past few years centered around acknowledging one’s privilege. A year ago, I listened to a guest speaker talk about intersectionality and the importance of understanding one’s own unique struggles and strengths. I raised my hand during the Q&A and explained that, at the time, I was finding it difficult to be simultaneously aware of my gifts and my hardships. I asked, “When one’s privileges are more obvious to others than one’s weaknesses, how does one defend oneself while acknowledging one’s privileges?”
The person responded by saying that human nature drives us to be aware of our weak spots in order to protect ourselves. In her opinion, what we should focus most on is our privileges because we’re more likely to overlook them.
I was frustrated and the speaker could tell. She said, “It looks like you have more to say about this.” I told her I did, to which she responded, “You don’t have to say more if you don’t want to.” I told her I wasn’t going to. That was it.
Except it wasn’t. I remembered that conversation from time to time this year. Each time I reflected on it, I realized how my position had changed. Last month when I had the conversation again with a different person, I explained that, at the time of that speech, I was in a position where I had unlocked many of my own self-imposed chains, and was critical of the way others could tie not only me, but others they did not know down based on assumptions. I wanted to explain to the speaker that not all of us humans are programmed the same way. Some of us are naturally inclined to feel guilt for our privileges and dismiss our hardships. Some of us have a hard time acknowledging that we might still struggle. I wanted the speaker to see that as a core aspect of intersectionality.
I was disappointed by her answer. I viewed her response as indicative of her own bias despite her career focus on dismantling biases. Her answer was indicative of her belief that I, based on my appearance and position as a Boston College student, needed to acknowledge my own privilege. And, in some ways, she was right.
I didn’t see that then and, to an extent, I still don’t. For those who may appear to have it all, but cannot reap the benefits of all that they have because of less apparent struggles, I believe that it is important to remember privilege is only worth as much as it is experienced as such. A blessing to one may not be what another person needs. That is a part of our unique identities.
We all carry several aspects of ourselves. Some pieces of our identities may intersect with those of others, but no one person will ever hold the same set of experiences and qualities as another. Thus, our needs at any given moment will differ, even slightly, from everyone else on this planet. The feelings of love, happiness, satisfaction, relief, gratitude, pride, etc. may be the targets of many of our needs, but how we each obtain the desired feeling is based on our individual circumstances.
Sometimes we might seemingly have it all, but lack the one thing that allows us to experience that target feeling. That was what I wanted to hear the speaker say.
I’m grateful she didn’t. It got me fired up. It got me thinking. It opened a wound that hadn’t properly healed. She brought out my resentment and I became curious why.
I realized that her push to have me recognize my privilege, at a time when I could, irritated the part of me that had once worked hard to finally acknowledge my pain. When my pain was gone and I had a stranger tell me to examine my privilege, I wanted to defend myself by explaining that all of my gifts have been dependent on my ability to receive them after working through my struggles. But that wasn’t the whole story anymore, and that was the part I had to think about.
Over this year, I have been more and more able to acknowledge my privilege as I experience it. I think that part – the privilege that is the ability to experience privilege – is what is often overlooked in all the talk about privilege, and the part that bothered me. Feeling grateful is not a token one trades in to feel pain, nor is it an antidote for pain. Gratitude, at least for me, is the feeling I have held this year when, despite hard times, I cannot help but count my blessings. Privilege is the awareness that all difficulties are a means to a worthwhile end for which one can genuinely feel grateful.
So, to the “I” that sat in that room, arms crossed, breathing shallow breaths; and to those who may or may not read this and feel that same defense against acknowledging privilege: It is okay to feel as though your blessings are hard to hold. It is not selfish, nor something to hide. It is something to work through. It may be scary and you may feel shame, but it is not shameful, it is your experience.
The thing to remember about privilege is that we all have it, but we have to determine what is standing in our way of accessing it in order to label it as such.
My privilege is knowing my own.
I wish you all the ability to access the privileges you have waiting for you in the coming year.