In liberal circles, we throw around the term “white privilege” just as frequently as we extend our allegiance to the newest group or cause that we feel has been wronged by the oblivious white man—whose power over other groups was unjustly given to him in the first place. White privilege jokes have almost become their own of entertainment.
But in bemoaning white privilege, especially at a place like Duke, we fail to recognize other types of privilege we have that can be just as exclusive, but perhaps are more easily rectified.
When I went home for spring break, my mom picked me up from the airport after my 40-minute flight from RDU. I could have gotten a train ticket at no cost using my dad’s Amtrak points, but the train is “slow and never arrives on time.” This rationale, combined with how upset I was about my last math midterm grade, was all I needed to say to convince my parents to buy me a plane ticket.
We drove home to a two-story house, with double the number of bedrooms that we actually need, in the suburbs of D.C. My mom had gone to Trader Joe’s earlier that week and stocked the fridge with my favorite snacks and “more vegetarian meals” because I had decided earlier last semester that I was going to become pescatarian.
I don’t have white privilege, but I’m pretty privileged otherwise. This is a difficult fact to acknowledge, because it’s easy to play the victim-of-race card, especially at Duke. Most of my friends here grew up in areas of white majority, so when they come here and meet people who aren’t white, they become more aware of the ways that people within minority groups face different obstacles throughout their lives. When I first got my column last semester, I tasked myself with making more people aware of the differences of life and experience that come from being black in America.
But you don’t have to be white to be privileged. You can have economic privilege without white privilege, and vice versa.
So far at Duke, I’ve found myself jumping back and forth between feeling like a victim of white privilege and a benefactor of economic privilege in order to better connect with whoever I’m talking to at the time. No, I’ve never been to Europe, but I have been to Costa Rica and on two week-long Caribbean cruises. I try to make other people more aware of their own privilege, but lately I’ve been sitting back and enjoying my own with little reflection.
The urge to ransack your personal memory files and come up with some experience that relates to the ones people around you are discussing is normal—and probably healthy, to an extent. Reflecting on our own lives to find points of similarity between ours and others builds a mutual feeling of belonging because we can reflect fondly together, as my roommate and I did the other night, on our respective experiences swimming with dolphins in Cozumel.
But the fleeting happy feeling we get from reflecting on those memories only lasts for a few minutes. The things I’ve learned from extending my privilege to help others are much more impactful than the moments and aesthetic vacation photos from when I was the sole benefactor of my own privilege. In middle school and high school, I woke up at 5:30am to drive to the bus stop. Then, I took an hour-long bus ride across the county to go to schools that had better teachers and better academic reputations, and in turn funneled out more students to elite high school magnet programs and selective universities.
For those seven years, I felt like I was the one at the greatest disadvantage because I had to travel so far to get to school every day. But in all of this, a point of privilege I still had was that my mom could drive me to the bus stop every morning. One morning as we were driving, my mom noticed a boy she had seen standing at the same bus stop I went to walking with his father along the side of the road near our neighborhood. “Doesn’t that boy ride the bus with you?” my mom asked. In my morning drowsiness, I glanced out the window and mumbled that I thought so. “Well, at this rate they’re going to miss the bus!” my mom said, and before I realized what was happening, she had pulled our car over to the side of the road and invited the boy and his father into the car.
We later found out that the boy walked two miles to the bus stop every morning because his family didn’t have a car. Like me, the boy decided that the academic benefits of attending a school across the county outweighed the costs. But when we recognized that his costs were greater than mine, my mom decided to offer him support. We started picking the boy up at his house every morning until his family got a car a few months later.
Even if I feel like I’m the least-advantaged at times, I’m probably not. I can still find ways to extend what I do have to others.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Lately, I seem to have forgotten this lesson. This that white people have “a right, advantage, or immunity granted to or enjoyed by white persons beyond the common advantage of all others,” and “an exemption in many particular cases from certain burdens or liabilities” is true. But it’s not going to change any time soon. And though some people like to say they can, it’s hard to “use your white privilege for the benefit of others.” Economic privilege is much more easily transferred and shared, and it doesn’t have to be limited to donating large sums of money to a cause.
White people didn’t do anything to earn racial privilege, but along a similar vein, dependents of upper or middle class families didn’t do anything to earn the economic privilege we were born into as infants. Besides volunteering and giving money to our church every month, I can’t think of many things I do to share of the privilege I do have. It seems logical that if I talk about being a victim of the white privilege I don’t have, I should be doing more to make sure I’m not an oblivious benefactor of my privilege.
Victoria Priester is a Trinity first-year. Her column, “on the run from mediocrity,” runs on alternate Fridays.