By Aja Barber

(photo by Stephen Cunningsworth)

The nerve of that person!  Telling you, that you have privilege!  Don’t they have any idea how hard you work for what you have?  They don’t know about you and they don’t know about your struggle.  

And chances are if you’ve had that response to someone telling you to “check your privilege”, perhaps you don’t know much about what privilege is.  And that’s why I’m writing this. To break it down for you. Because I have a boatload of privilege and chances are so do you! So how about I start by explaining all the privilege that I have!  

I’m sitting here typing to you from my living room in a modest flat in London. It’s one of the most affluent cities in the world and just living here has awarded me a ton of opportunity that I wouldn’t have if I lived elsewhere.  That’s a privilege and one which I don’t take lightly. But let’s go even further back than that.

I, Aja Barber am the product of a little bit of privilege.  Sure, I will never have my partner’s white male privilege, but I know that I have had certain advantages in life  that have put me in a place to be successful, that are not of my own doings. Sure, you have to work at things but privilege really open doors.  Privilege is purely the luck of the draw, the karmic lottery and something you have based on no actions of your own.  

But because you know you have it and I know you have and we both know we have it, what matters next is how we choose to spend it.  Hoarding your privilege to yourself and not using it to help others or even worse…the flat out denial of it all together, is the reason why that person probably told you to “check your privilege”.  So, let’s talk about my privilege and maybe you’ll feel a little bit more comfortable talking about yours.

For starters I grew up in a two parent, middle class black home in Northern Virginia.  Northern Virginia is consistently rated as one of the top places to raise children in America.  Because of that, our public schools have better resources than most which means that just by living in an affluent area, you already have a head start on someone who is from a less affluent part of the US, who’s school system has less money and less funding.  We had access to opportunities galore because of our proximity to Washington DC … things which my cousins in rural parts of America, simply never had. Our public school (state school here) had a computer lab full of Apple computers in the 80s. Older relatives of mine have never even owned a computer.

My parents are not rich by any stretch of the imagination but they’re both hard workers who had access to resources.  We definitely wore hand me downs and my Mother clipped coupons (a habit formed from a childhood without privilege) … but my parents also saved so we could travel.  I’d argue that travel is the reason I knew that one day I would like to live in London. Both my parents did better than the previous generation as is the dream of most ethnic minority families. Both my parents are college graduates with master degrees.  That’s brilliant, but almost always a first for their generation. This is where I also state that doing better than the previous generation often means that things like inheritance don’t really exist for many ethnic minorities (myself included).

I am cis gender, which means I was born in the body I identify with.  When I go into a men’s fitting room in a department store to try on an oversized sweater (I love a men’s fit) no one ever tries to stop me and tell me I’m not allowed.  I do get misgendered sometimes (because blackness isn’t featured in a dominant way in regards to beauty standards in our society) and because I’m a black person with natural hair … but that’s an entire other essay in itself.

I am able bodied.  I’m always ashamed to admit this but until I had friends with disability, I didn’t always give it a ton of thought. I never walked around a concert venue before and thought about whether or not it would be enjoyable for someone with mobility issues.  I immediately thought the straw ban for all was an excellent idea but negated to understand that folks with disability need a straw to enjoy a drink just like I do. Feeling ashamed about these things isn’t entirely helpful because sometimes there’s no way we can know these things until it’s brought to our attention … but it’s important to own it and do better once we know better and that’s why we’re having this discussion.

Even though my husband is a good egg and understands a lot of what I speak and write about, there are things he will simply never understand because he hasn’t lived them.  He’ll never understand what it’s like to be denied usage of a bathroom because of the color of his skin (which happened the last road trip we took in America … yes they had a bathroom, no I couldn’t use it).  He’ll never understand the fear I have of driving alone in rural parts of America (due to police brutality). He’ll never understand what it’s like to know for certain that that overly friendly sales assistant was actually following you around the store the whole time (something which happens a lot less now that it did in my teens and twenties).  He’ll never understand what it’s like to know you are more qualified for the job than the person next to you and yet they are being paid more (something which happens with regularity).

And lastly the micro aggressions (which I’ll cover next time).  He’ll never understand what it feels like to walk into a store and not see a single bottle of shampoo with a person who looks like him on it.  (Which happens to me sometimes when I leave the safe confines of ethnically diverse London for the Lake District).  

Not understanding these things doesn’t make him a bad person.  It doesn’t make me a bad person because I didn’t understand my able bodied privilege (and am still learning about it).  It just means it’s a blind spot for us … but it also means it’s our job to call attention to these things and amplify the voices of others because we have the privilege to do so.  In a nutshell.

For more reading check out:

White Privilege, The Myth of a Post Racial Society

White Privilege Essential Readings On The Other Side of Racism

Be The Change

(Look out for a familiar face on the chapter about privilege)