During my sophomore year of college I dated a senior who loved milkshakes from this gas station/convenience store in Vermont called Stewarts. We both attended MCLA in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, really close to Williams College. Every once in a while we’d hop in his car and drive through Williamstown, right through Williams College campus, and over the Vermont border.
On the drive back one time, as we coasted through Williamstown, staring out the window at the rolling lawns and gorgeous architecture of the prestigious school, my boyfriend looked at me and asked me what I was thinking about. If you know me, you know I hold all of my emotions on my face, so I’m sure I had this deeply inquisitive look on my face because what I was thinking was definitely not a light topic.
When I first drove through Williams College campus on my way to MCLA the first time I visited with my parents, my mom pointed out the window and said, “See those gorgeous green manicured lawns? That’s what 60k+ gets you a year.” She was right of course, Williams is a D1 college that only accepts the best of the best. The joke is that students who don’t get accepted to Williams, go to Harvard.
As you can probably guess, MCLA and William are rivals. Not in sports or academics or anything; in fact, MCLA is a D3 school in sports and a public state school, where Williams is private. No, we’re rivals because of money and the values that always seem to follow economic issues. MCLA is the cheapest state school in Mass, highly diverse, heavy in community service and environmental awareness. Williams is one of the most expensive private colleges in Mass, settled securely in a dominantly white, upper class city, with a strong focus on sports and academic testing. The stigma is that MCLA students are poor, dirty hippies and Williams students are rich, entitled A-holes.
As my then-boyfriend and I drove through Williamstown that beautiful fall afternoon, I couldn’t help those judgments from creeping up. But my thoughts were suddenly halted. A few weeks earlier, I had gotten in an argument with my best friend from home over the word “privilege.” I hate that word. For as long as I can remember, there has been a tiny disconnect between the two of us because of things neither of us could control: money. Primarily that of our families.
My family is considered middle class. We’re comfortable. Smart about our money, but not hurting. We’re not rich or upper class. We’re just hard working. By “we” I mean my parents, cause not a dime of that money is mine to claim. I was lucky to be raised in a household that always had food and heat and water, but I’m not delusional – that’s my parents money.
I don’t remember what our argument was about, but I remember arguing that I wasn’t privileged. I hated the thought that I could be judged by something I couldn’t control, something I was born into. I worked just as hard an anyone else, but the bottom line was, whether I wanted to admit it or not, I was privileged.
I’m white. I’m female. I have money in my bank account. I can ask my mom and dad for cash if I’m low. I’ve never been socially mistreated or disrespected. Or hatefully stereotyped. I’ve never been scared to leave my house. I’ve never felt I didn’t deserve to be somewhere. I’ve never been followed around a convenience store because they think I’ll steal something. I’ve never been stopped and frisked because of my clothing or skin color or status as an American citizen. I’ve never been targeted by authorities due to the actions of extremists in my community or country or religion. I’m privileged.
There’s a stereotype for everything. Including the word privileged. The definition of privilege is having advantages. Not being better than someone else, just having more opportunities to succeed. It doesn’t even inherently mean money. It can mean appearance or IQ or skills. But we tend use it when referring to children born into higher class families because we believe they are immediately further ahead than others.
Williams students are privileged. Not because their families have money, but because they have an amazing opportunity to attend one of the best colleges in the country. Sure, some of those students come from families that could probably afford to buy the entire school, but there are also a lot of students that attend Williams purely on scholarships alone. Same with MCLA – there are students who just let their parents pay for their education, but there are also students that work their asses off for scholarships and part time jobs – I was one of them.
Driving through Williams campus, I said, “I want to hate them for having something better than me, but thats not fair. They’re privileged, but so am I, just in different ways.” I remember my boyfriend pausing for a second and then saying, “Huh, I’d never thought of it that way.” Instead of tearing each other down for what some people have and others don’t, we should be supporting each other and using our various types of privilege to further our communities for the greater good.
Over the past few years of unrest between cops and black communities, I kept hearing other white students on the MCLA campus saying, “I don’t know how to help.” They weren’t sure if they were allowed to feel injustice the way the students of color were feeling, or if it was appropriate for them to be just as angry since their own race wasn’t being persecuted the same way. The point isn’t to show that you’re suffering the same way or try to draw a parallel between your situations. The point is to acknowledge that there even is an issue and to use your privilege, whatever that might be, to improve the situation.
So how does one use their privilege?
When I interned at Suffolk University one summer, I use to walk past this homeless woman every morning and evening. She never moved from her spot in the Boston Commons – she had a bum right leg and her left hand curled toward her forearm severely. I was working as an unpaid intern at the time and barely had enough money to buy myself lunch each day. That summer, the weather was ridiculously hot and I read multiple articles about homeless people dying of dehydration and sun exposure in large cities. Every other week I would buy a pack of granola bars and pass them out to the homeless people on my walk to work that looked like they could really use a helping hand. Once or twice, I bought a bottle of water after work and brought it to the disabled woman in the Commons. She never said thank you, but that’s not the point. I was identifying an issue that I could help with. My privilege was having an extra three dollars in my pocket to share with someone who had none.
I watched a video the other day of a black woman and her sister in-law, who primarily looks caucasian, at a grocery store using written checks to pay. The white woman paid with a check and the white cashier didn’t even blink. The black woman paid with a check and the white cashier announced that she had to verify that the check wasn’t counterfeit. Besides the injustice of the entire situation, the point was that the white woman stepped in and asked the cashier why she was treating the black woman completely differently. The white woman wasn’t trying to “save” the black woman or fight her battle for her, but she was using her privilege as a white community member to draw attention to an unacceptable situation because she knew the white cashier would listen to her.
It’s all about voice. About hearing. About listening to the other person to understand, not just to respond. Use your privilege to speak out and speak up. It’s not about taking other peoples’ issues on as your own – its about using your situation to join the conversation. If you’re lucky enough or worked hard enough to attend Williams College, then use your privilege of receiving a top-notch education to help others in whatever field you enter. If you’re a man and see other men cat-calling a woman on the street for nothing other than the fact that she’s female, say something. Use your privilege of being a man to speak up. If you’re a police officer in a low economic neighborhood, use your privilege as an authoritative figure to get to know the people in the community you’re patrolling. Educate yourself where ever you are. Communicate with those around you. Be aware of what’s happening around you.
The world won’t change over night, but together we can get the ball rolling and start educating each other by thinking outside of the box.
Here’s a BuzzFeed video that explains it a bit more as well: