“When are you gonna get some Black friends?”
The question from my mother was routine and well-intentioned, but it bothered me. I had tried. In those middle-school days, there was a group of Black kids (who I simply referred to as “the girls”) who made it their daily ritual to harass and bully me.
“Look at her, don’t she look like a rat?!”
“Walkin’ around like she better than us.” I don’t think I’m better than you.
“You yellow. Which one of ya parents white, your mama or your daddy?” Neither, actually!
And on and on. It was a wounding set of experiences, and one I couldn’t understand at the time. In my mind, we all shared a Black experience. My grandparents had marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and fought for all our rights — why were these girls making me their enemy? I lived in the uncomfortable space of being too Black for the white kids and too “white” for the Black kids.
I tried everything to fit in somewhere: relaxing my hair, changing my style of dress or the inflections of my voice. When none of it worked and the bullying intensified from all directions, I distanced myself from “the girls” and from their Blackness, wanting no part of their version of it. If this is what “having Black friends” meant, I would happily have none.
But in these younger days, I didn’t have any concept of the privilege I represented to my daily tormenters.
I hadn’t endured the same ugly insults hurled from white people toward my older brother, who is several layers deeper brown than I am. I’d grown up rarely having to worry that our basic needs would be met; attending my parents’ graduation from their doctoral programs; and not having to work to support myself and my family. It’s not to say that growing up wasn’t without challenges of various kinds, but those challenges weren’t about lack of access.
Even though my perception was that we were all Black because we shared a certain set of experiences and ancestry, there were layers of privilege within my Blackness I hadn’t understood.
Today, with the rising tide of #BlackLivesMatter and consciousness around issues of anti-Blackness and other forms of oppression, I often have to re-examine what my “solidarity” looks like within such a wide range of oppressed experiences.
Although I continue to reject the notion that there’s one way to “be Black” (or to be any marginalized identity), I also recognize that so much of the brutality and violence this movement combats is directed at poor Black and Brown folks trying to survive under systematic racism and poverty. And that hasn’t been my experience.
I can identify with the sick feeling that comes with being called a “nigger” walking down the street; I can’t identify with not being able to navigate my comfort and safety in most situations. And that doesn’t mean I have to “feel bad.” It just means I have to be aware.
At times I and those around me aren’t willing to look at our privileges nearly as much as our oppression, and I understand that on a personal level. With the daily tolls of racism, classism, sexism, transphobia and other oppressions, sometimes it’s the last thing we want to look at. But I’ve seen the harm that can be done when we are unwilling to acknowledge how our own power and privilege also impacts our experiences:
Poor white folks who enact racism and xenophobia to elevate themselves; trans men who are unable to see patterns of internalized sexism and misogyny they enact; Black men who silence and invisibilize Black women and gender non-conforming folks in movement spaces; light-skinned folks of color who become the face of protests; etc.
There is pain and oppression within in each of these experiences, mixed with a failure to recognize the ways in which privilege exists and harms, reduces, or erases others.
While there’s nothing that can be done about how I grew up and about the unearned advantages I have inherited in my lifetime, there are ways that I can pay attention to how my privilege shows up, and ways that I can leverage it.
As a light-skinned, Black, masculine of center, middle-class, able-bodied, institutionally-educated person, I can pay attention to how much I’m speaking in spaces with folks who do or do not look like me. I can articulate my experience only, and not speak on the experiences of those I’m in solidarity with. I can offer material resources to spaces and organizations when I can afford to. And I can hold myself lovingly accountable when making mistakes that are related to my privilege and access.
Confronting privilege as a person with multiple oppressed identities is a messy, uncomfortable, and ongoing process with few answers.
What do you think? How do we be in solidarity while also acknowledging the diverse class, education, and ability representations in our communities and movements? What does leveraging access and privilege (while acknowledging our oppression) look like to you?