Checking My Privilege

For the last month, I have had the privilege to take time off from work. There were conditions that went along with this leave that I was always aware of before finalizing the decision, but I start this post by clearly stating this was a privilege because we are living in a time where people are being fired, laid off, and furloughed amidst a global pandemic. These occurrences are very clearly anything but voluntary by those on the receiving end, so I understood how lucky I was to have this option. I took advantage of this opportunity for a variety of reasons and one of the main reasons was the mental space and time to do some serious work internally.

Like many others, I have learned so much about myself and especially (and more importantly) about others since the takeover of COVID-19. This has been a loaded year which is really an understatement, but this post is not a reflection about this year, nor is it a reflection of COVID-19 since both are unfortunately still happening. Still, it is important to highlight the significance of this pandemic because had it not been for lockdown, there are a lot of truths I am not entirely sure I would have confronted with such fervor. Last month, a friend invited me to join a book club and our first book was “So You Want to Talk About Race?” by Ijeoma Oluo. In the book, the author asks readers to write down a list of their privileges as an exercise which we, of course, did. Despite being a black woman in U.S., I still found my own set of privileges. My list read (in no particular order):

  • able-bodied
  • growing up in a stable household
  • growing up in a two-parent household
  • not having to fully support myself financially during college
  • straight and cisgender
  • always had reliable transportation
  • documented U.S. citizen
  • U.S. passport holder
  • conventionally attractive
  • having lighter skin in the black community
  • employed with health benefits and other perks
  • having a 401k set up
  • a semblance of financial independence, but can also find financial support if needed
  • charter and private school education
  • two academic degrees
  • neurotypical
  • ability to codeswitch
  • always had good physical health

When I first created my list, I felt guilt that I assumed I was so marginalized. Though there are many respects in which I am, this feeling of guilt eventually shifted to feeling grateful and inspired to make changes with the way I interact with the world. This list is a working list meaning that I could discover new privileges every day by continuing to have conversations with new people in my life and by learning new information about other communities around me. However, seeing a list of my privileges laid out in front of me has truly changed the way I view life.
If you read my blog post about my relationship with my body, that was a goal for this month in which I initially envisioned as returning to my four-day-a-week workout routine so I could develop a habit of staying in shape; instead, I have grown a higher appreciation for my body and have found more joy in exercising instead of using it as a form of punishment. I have stopped feeling guilty about my disappointment in not being able to travel, but have also found a way to keep travel relevant in my life without jeopardizing my health or the health of others by choosing to hang up my passport until further notice.
Sidenote: that in itself is another privilege because travel is 100% leisure for me–I did/do not travel for business, and I am not a frontline worker like many of our airline staff that are risking their lives every day and yet are currently at high risk of losing their jobs with major carriers here in the U.S. Be sure to follow the link for more information about how you can help!!
With the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, I have spent more time keeping abreast of social issues and change leaders by cleaning up my social media feeds and YouTube subscriptions so I can start giving attention and energy to what is important to me; furthermore, I recognize that my ongoing struggle with depression and anxiety means that I cannot stomach knowing every detail about everything and that is also okay. I have done further work by evaluating the relationships within my life and learning to deal with my anger displacement and resentment by putting that energy into something effective or that simply makes me happy. I have also made difficult decisions in altering or ending relationships altogether. The list of internal work goes on, but I truly do not think I would have carved out time to makes these changes had I not made the ultimate decision of taking a form of extended time off.

When we think of privilege, we immediately associate it with white people and/or people who have a lot of money. While this is true, we each have things in our lives that put us at advantages and disadvantages. These days, especially as a black woman, it is hard to find joy or hope. It is a privilege to have access to things that make me happy or make my life easier, like some of the things on my list above, during these difficult times. But that doesn’t mean I need to walk around mad at the world at every moment of every day to prove how hard my struggles are. Even if I am mad/sad/disappointed/etc, it’s simply not healthy and doesn’t help me be an effective person in daily life. We all cope in different ways and knowing that I am a part of larger movements fighting against injustices in my own way reminds me that I do not take anything about my existence on the Earth for granted. Every day I am learning something new about myself and for the first time, it’s not so much overwhelming as it is relieving. I am picking and choosing my battles as they arise and truly asking myself on an ongoing basis, “How does this serve me?” How does picking a fight on the Internet with someone who has conflicting political views serve me? How does being upset that a friend is being unresponsive serve me? How does continually getting worked up in an environment that has always been toxic serve me? If it doesn’t serve me, I ask what part of this occurrence is within my control and how I can redirect my energy to improving my situation.

There will always be days where I am pissed and sad and hopeless. Given everything that is currently happening in the news, especially as it relates to attacks on black bodies, I have every right and reason to feel this way. There will also always be scenarios in which I will never win and certain freedoms and levels of success I will never reach as a black woman in America. I know I am not a Michelle Obama or an AOC who both pay very high prices to be the change leaders and role models we need and deserve. But I do know that I have privilege and agency, and every day, every interaction is an opportunity to make a difference. From my smallest moments of making someone laugh when they have felt nothing but defeated the last two weeks to the large moments of voting, protesting, and donating/sharing information about ongoing social justice movements, it is about how you choose to do with what you have. It is certainly a privilege to sit here on my paid vacation from the comfort of my home that I don’t really struggle to afford and suggest what you should be doing with your emotions, time, and energy when many people don’t have the option to take time off right now. However, it is a privilege I am choosing to try and leverage for good to show others what I have learned and how I personally feel we can all be more effective towards the changes we want to see in our lives. These sorts of reflections do not necessitate extended time off by any means, but just a willingness to look within and really commit yourself to the work.

We have absolutely no idea what our futures are supposed to look like in any aspect, but if there’s anything I have learned recently, it’s that nothing in life is promised including life itself. It’s not so much morbid as it should be eye-opening. In short, this break has given me the breakthrough I have been searching for for years. When I leave this planet that I sometimes feel like even I am in a race against time with, I want to be more at peace than at conflict with people, thoughts, ideologies, and anything else designed to try to keep me down. I cannot and I will not let these forces win. If you have been listening and engaging this summer, I am sure you have confronted some difficult truths as well. If you feel comfortable, I would love to know what big realization you have had since lockdown in the comments. And if you decide to try the exercise I mentioned from “So You Want to Talk About Race,” ask yourself how you can start using your privilege for something good.

xx, AE

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