How to Check Your Privilege

Guys, I have a secret to tell you. Promise you won’t hate me? Pinky Promise? Well… I’m white. That’s right. I’m white. I’m male, too. Oh, and I’m cisgender. That’s it. The cat’s out of the bag. I’m sorry I had to be the one to break the news to you.

While it’s obvious that all of the aforementioned “secrets” aren’t secrets at all, the fact that I had to state them is important. As a white, cisgender male, there are so many things that I don’t understand about systemic racism and prejudices. This post is geared to highlight some of those experiences.

What I also need to acknowledge is that I benefit from a little thing called white privilege.

Mt. Holyoke College defines white privilege as “a set of advantages and/or immunities that white people benefit from on a daily basis beyond those common to all others. White privilege can exist without white people’s conscious knowledge of its presence and it helps to maintain the racial hierarchy in this country.”

Up until I started college, I was unconscious of my privilege. When I first realized I benefited from this privilege, I knew I needed to do something to change the paradigm. So, I interviewed three of my friends whom I respect to provide an overview of their experiences as people of color in higher education settings at predominately white/elite institutions. A glossary of terms covered will be at the bottom of this post.

Now let’s turn to the insight of three of the most intelligent, hard-working, dedicated, ingenious people I know: Ani, George and Dan.

Aniekan (Ani) Inoyo is a 22-year-old Nigerian woman born and raised primarily in Lagos, Nigeria, but has also lived in Waterloo, Belgium and the United States (LA, CT, MA, TX). Both of her parents are Nigerian from Akwa Ibom State and both Ibibio (tribe). She became a naturalized US citizen in Spring 2014. She is a graduate of Choate Rosemary Hall and received her Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Boston University‘s College of Engineering. She’s also a fierce model.

Q: Tell me about any microaggressions you experienced as a student on campus.

To list them all would take too long but I will share that microaggressions (insults/dismissals) I experience come in a few forms. Some microaggressions come with insults to my culture as a Nigerian. So not directly towards my African descent, but to the fact that I spent most of my life in Africa. Not sure whether to deem those microaggressions or just acts of ignorance. “How did you get here?” (on a plane just like you) “Is it safe there?” (not every African region is unsafe) “How did you hear about BU?” (people and the internet – how else?). Now being in the College of Engineering, of course I was bound to come across multiple microaggressions (from peers, TA’s and professors alike) about being a female. General treatment of assistance, even when not asked, not needed or turned down. Assuming that because I am female, I would be more attracted to your friend because he is an Engineer. Assuming that I myself am not one too. And of course, microaggressions about being black. “Stop being sassy.” Having someone suddenly change their accent to what they think a black person sounds like, when speaking to me. “You’re not that black.” “You’re like an oreo” (as if my articulate diction and education can’t be black). “Why is there a National Society of Black Engineers, there should be one for white engineers..” The list goes on, but to sum it up, a lot of it was due to the combination of all three aspects: black and female and African. I have had peers deny my results and analytics until validated by someone who looked like them (usually also white and male and American).

Q: College was created way back when for straight, rich, white men. Obviously over time, this has changed, but the mentality on most of these campuses still has a hidden hierarchy in place, particularly affecting queer people, people of color (POCs) and women. What are you experiences about feeling included or excluded during your time in college?

Inclusion is having the university and/or college not only create a space where organizations like Society of Women Engineers (SWE), National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), can exist, but also provide funding to help them succeed. That being said, there are still gaps for exclusion when it is up to the students in these organizations to have to educate and promote the importance of the diverse affinity groups to other students, without the university or college integrating it into their required courses or syllabi. I can feel very honored when I am chosen to represent the university to inform minorities in the community about Engineering, but soon after be depressed upon seeing offensive posters hung by students in my lab.

Q: White privilege is something we’re talking more and more about each day. As a POC, what is your experience with white privilege (WP)?

Imagine a group project. Two students. One white, one black. White privilege is having your professor look at you each time he is pointing out a success in your report. As opposed to the microaggression of that professor looking at me every time he mentioned the mistakes, or blunders (as if they were all made by me). White privilege is having the blindness and confidence to ask me why I follow so many black people on Instagram, as to say it’s abnormal, without thinking of your almost all white follower/following list. White privilege is sometimes not having to think about your hair or posture or volume or tone in every interaction you make. White privilege is voicing your discomfort in a group of all black people, yet never seeing mine living in a school where 97% of the population doesn’t look like me. White privilege is having your decision to choose Engineering as a major celebrated, not questioned.

Q: As a college graduate now, what advice would you want to give to any POCs that may be going through similar experiences you had as a student?

Talking about it helps. Start by finding people on campus that you can share your frustrations and concerns with (and no, they don’t all need to look like you). Don’t be afraid to speak up about it. Unfortunately, if you don’t, not many people will on your behalf. So whether it’s your friend or your professor or even a Dean, feel free to share with them: “Hey, that’s offensive. You shouldn’t say that because this is what it implies…”

Q: Given the opportunity, what would you say to white people/ people blind to these issues to help make them more aware of the reality and what they can do to help?

If you didn’t know about these issues, I’m not going to argue and say you should have. But now that you do, here’s what I want you to take away: if you are ever in a situation where someone expresses discomfort, frustration, or offense, you should accept it and not argue over it. If someone has taken the courage to express that they feel offended, do not use that as an opportunity to explain your joke, or share how you think they should have felt. Simply apologize, and ask what about the situation/joke was offensive so as to not repeat the microaggression again. If you don’t know, just ask.

A final note: I don’t know what’s worse, the craziness of these things that happened in college, or the disappointment that it’s still there in the workplace/grad school.

George Ramirez was born in Ecuador and grew up in the Bronx, NY. Because he grew up around so many different cultures, he strongly identifies as Latino. He attended Choate with Ani and graduated from Yale in 2015 with a Bachelor of Science in Physics and History.

Q: Tell me about any microaggressions you experienced as a student on campus.

Lordt. Where do I begin? I think the majority of the microaggressions I experienced were definitely in the classroom. Very few students of color major in the sciences, let alone physics. In fact, I was the only Latinx student to graduate in the field that year. My professors weren’t really interested in getting to know their students, so they often didn’t learn our names. Except when it came time to return exams – they knew exactly who to turn to when they read the name Ramirez. During my freshman year, my physics teacher told me to consider another major because “people like [me] couldn’t really handle it.” Then of course, there are the countless number of instances where security guards asked to see my ID because they didn’t think I was a student. Or the great occasions when meeting people at parties and telling me I must be great at spanish after hearing my last name.

Q: College was created way back when for straight, rich, white men. Obviously over time, this has changed, but the mentality on most of these campuses still has a hidden hierarchy in place, particularly affecting queer people, people of color (POCs) and women. What are you experiences about feeling included or excluded during your time in college?

I thought after going to boarding school, I’d be prepared to face any sort of elitist and privileged space, but college proved to be another challenge. Especially since Yale prides itself on tradition, I definitely felt excluded during my time there. It’s easy to celebrate wealth at Yale – everything needs money to get done. From the parties to the official celebrations, everything that is done there is rooted in money. So, as a student on full financial aid who worked 20 hours a week, it felt as though I wasn’t like everyone else. Even within the already elitist university, there existed even smaller groups that were more exclusive, and it didn’t feel like I was welcome there. From the classroom to the dorms, it felt like Yale celebrated straight, rich, white males, so as a gay, low-income, first-gen Latino, I felt like I went to classes there but never belonged to a community.

Q: White privilege is something we’re talking more and more about each day. As a POC, what is your experience with white privilege (WP)?

There is a whole lot that can be said about this, but I think college taught me that white privilege means not having to learn or care about other people besides the one in power. I love the analogy that says white privilege is your history being a required course and mine being an elective because it spreads through the university as well. As a white person, society doesn’t force you to think about any perspective beside your own. I rarely felt that my white peers or my white professors and administrators cared about me because, frankly, they never had to until they were forced.

Q: As a college graduate now, what advice would you want to give to any POCs that may be going through similar experiences you had as a student?

My biggest piece of advice for all students of color in higher education is to take the available ethnic studies, women’s studies, and queer studies courses. When facing these microaggressions, it’s hard to internalize what they mean and how they affect the world beyond ourselves. However, these courses help contextualize sentiments and ideologies to their core, and thus, they provide you the knowledge and language necessary to begin deconstructing those interactions by inspiring you to create change in your own way. This way, you can also find professors who are invested in people like you and they can support you in and out of the classroom.

Q: Given the opportunity, what would you say to white people/ people blind to these issues to help make them more aware of the reality and what they can do to help?

Perhaps it’s the teacher/aspiring professor in me, but I would tell these people to take a class in these fields. Often, white people are in denial of systemic issues because they’ve never had to engage with them critically. These courses help EVERYONE understand where these issues began and how they still affect people to this day.

A final note: Decolonize the mind, and you will learn the truth!

Daniel Lobo is originally from East Boston, MA, but primarily grew up just north of Boston in Lynn. His parents and grandparents are all from Cape Verde, an archipelago off the coast of Senegal, West Africa. He graduated from Harvard in 2014 and concentrated in Social Studies, an interdisciplinary social science major grounded in social theory.

More on Dan, from Dan: There’s a fairly long history of immigration from Cape Verde to the Boston area because of the fishing industry, so pretty much all of my American-based family lives in the greater Boston area. Cape Verdeans can differ pretty dramatically in terms of phenotype due to a combination of European-African cross-pollination and inter-island migration patterns. My mom is pretty white passing while my dad looks darker-skinned Portuguese. Most people think I’m either Redbone, Puerto Rican, or Brazilian. I went to a small Catholic school on a scholarship after attending some pretty low performing public schools. I was your typical bright kid who wasn’t being challenged enough, so I spent my time being pretty social and disruptive. But because I wanted to prove myself to the people who were funding my education, I was pretty focused in high school. The first person in my family to go to college, I somehow landed at Harvard and life hasn’t been the same since. I chose my major because I enjoyed and believed in interdisciplinary study and the department required students to design their own course of study—a focus field of your choice. I focused on U.S. K-12 Education Policy, taking several courses at the Graduate School of Education. I was also required to write a senior thesis in Social Studies. My magna thesis was entitled: “An Examination of Meanings of Diversity Across Four-year College’s Case for Context: Institutions of Higher Education.”

Q: Tell me about any microaggressions you experienced as a student on campus.

The microaggressions I experienced definitely fell along a spectrum of gravity. One more subtle microaggression I experienced occurred in section for a public health class I took during my senior year. I was the only URM (underrepresented minority) in a section of at least 15 students. We were discussing a study surrounding the public health outcomes of black women in low-income Boston communities. A white student raised his hand to present his thesis that race “doesn’t matter” when it comes to access to quality healthcare—access is a function of SES (socioeconomic status), not race. While this side of the binary may have been aligned with results of this particular study, I thought it was contrary to the discussion portion of the study, where the author seemed to suggest that it was much more nuanced than this. Nonetheless, two other students provided thoughts in agreement. The future leaders of the free world, I thought, convincing themselves that race doesn’t matter at a university that prides itself on producing worldly and empathetic thinkers. What’s worse was that the teaching fellow was complicit in this ignorant assault on the POC experience—he didn’t tell them that they were wrong. I had a productive exchange with the TF after I expressed how upsetting this section was as the only POC in the room, but those students left with their fallacy of a colorless world still very much intact. I think that’s what I took offense to most, to be honest.

Q: College was created way back when for straight, rich, white men. Obviously over time, this has changed, but the mentality on most of these campuses still has a hidden hierarchy in place, particularly affecting queer people, people of color (POCs) and women. What are you experiences about feeling included or excluded during your time in college?

I feel like there were very particular – at Harvard, especially with Final Club culture – that exclusivity was perpetuated by some of the most elite people on campus. These types of spaces were obviously spaces that I was excluded from, right? So I realized that there were certain spaces that were not built for me and I just sort of worked around them. However, I did appreciate that at Harvard there were a lot of opportunities to feel included in other spaces because for the most part, because Final Clubs are not recognized, the university in turn does quite a lot to promote inclusivity and diversity. I appreciate that I was afforded the ability to create a space for first generation students on campus because that was an opportunity I saw to make people feel more included who largely felt excluded in a lot of different ways. I definitely think there were elements of both exclusivity and inclusivity on campus, but I thought it was pretty – as annoying as the exclusivity was and as counter as it felt to the broader mission of the institution – it was pretty easy for me to find and build more inclusive spaces which I appreciated. 

Q: White privilege is something we’re talking more and more about each day. As a POC, what is your experience with white privilege (WP)?

I think my experience with white privilege (WP) on campus lies more fundamentally in my college experience as whole as it was much more transformative in many ways than to my privileged peers. In the sense that I came in with a goal of coming out a different person than I walked in as and I felt that happening. In that process, there was a lot that I needed to do to challenge myself: challenge myself to learn more because I realized I wasn’t as smart as I though I was; challenge myself to consider other perspectives that included perspectives that I disagreed with fundamentally; and I still had to engage in the process of “If I want to grow as a person, I need to see if there’s a way I can incorporate this into my character otherwise I’m going through this process of transformation in an inauthentic way where I’m not changing.”

I need to leave myself open to changing my mind and I found that for many of privileged white peers were less interested in pushing themselves. They came into the experience – maybe it’s because they had a much more stronger sense of self, feeling more confident and didn’t have as much to learn but to me that was like not – but for me it was a transformative experience that I knew was going to change my life, initially only monetarily. I didn’t think about the increase in social capital I would earn. It was interesting to meet people because either their parents went to Harvard or a place similar and it felt like it was just another milestone in their life – it didn’t carry the same gravity of meaning and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just a different thing.

I didn’t take anything for granted, to a fault in the beginning, because I felt I didn’t have a right to complain about any of the things that I was experiencing because I “made it Harvard” “I’m lucky to be here” “I’m probably an admissions mistake” and “I can’t say anything.. life could be so much worse for me”- all which was true, but I still earned my spot there and I think as a contributing member of the community, I needed to make my voice heard. I needed to make the community at large better and that was something I learned in the end. For many people, college was more of an expectation and less of an opportunity for deep transformation – I think part of their WP is that they didn’t need to be transformed because their background was already one of privilege. They’ve had a much smaller delta as to where they came in at and where they came out and my delta had a much bigger discrepancy because I was already disadvantaged coming in and I had all these ambitious goals where as they’re already at top and knew where they wanted to go.

Q: As a college graduate now, what advice would you want to give to any POCs that may be going through similar experiences you had as a student?

The advice that I would give is for POCs to recognize their strength and perhaps the alternative form of social capital they bring to WP spaces. Like I said earlier, I had a lot to learn, but I think in recognizing that I undervalued what I did bring to the community  – and I undervalued it because I took it as what I was given to that point, my empathy and humility and my willingness to listen and ability to work with many different kinds of people and socialize with them, too and a perception as a disadvantaged POC. I was smart enough to keep up academically and so I think that because of my intellectual horse power – I mean I was at Harvard – I was not at the top anymore. I accepted and it was fine because I knew I was smart enough and I knew I was around people who were much smarter and I was and I was like, “I don’t bring as much to the table.” I forgot about all of the other alternatives and the multiple intelligences that go into an academic community.

It’s not just about intellectual horsepower, it’s about your EQ and the way you interact with people and the way you approach academic discourse –  it’s those sorts of skills and competencies that can improve the academic experience and community overall. I met a lot of people who had that intellectual horsepower, but were quite deficient in those other aforementioned areas. It wasn’t until later in my career that I accepted that I might not be the most book smart person here but there’s been a lot of stuff that I’ve taken for granted about myself that it’s well represented here and could benefit this community. And I think a lot that had to do with me being a underrepresented POC at Harvard. It’s important for other POCs to think about what they bring to the table and do a bit of an assessment in terms of “you might not think this is as important as it is, but it probably is very important” and then to just take pride in those things.

I just remember when I realized that the strength that I had as a first generation student on campus and how I shouldn’t be embarrassed about saying I am because it shows my strength. Getting into Harvard was a much bigger deal for me than for many of my privileged peers as they had all the resources in the world – if I had those same resources I would’ve gotten into H 3x over. But I worked with very little and I was able to get into the best college in the world – that’s a big deal but it’s interesting to me is that I was truly embarrassed about that part of my identity for most of my college career because now it’s like one my biggest badges of honor. I tell people and they’re impressed because as the first person in my family to go college, I got into Harvard on my first try – the best college in the world. It’s very telling of what I’m capable of doing and the grit I have, my ability to achieve goals that I set for myself. I’ve been tested in ways that many people haven’t and I think that can in a variety of ways that it parallels other POC in the sense of overcoming challenges those not in our position have had to face. There are skills that are learned from those experiences and it’s important for POC to recognize that and put those skills to practice on their campuses.

Part of the reason I wanted to start a first generation community is not only to improve the experience of first gens’ on campus but also to improve the university overall as I believe in this university, yet I believe it can be better and this is one way that it can be and it’s very important for all forms of disadvantaged people to assert themselves in these communities so it’s better for all people experiencing them. 

Q: Given the opportunity, what would you say to white people/ people blind to these issues to help make them more aware of the reality and what they can do to help?

So I think this is the most important question to answer and I want to give very tactical instructions.

The first thing that I would say to white people/people blind to these issues is listen to POCs and do so tactically. This can be done by finding a POC that you know has different experiences from you (which in part will be inherent by them having different skin color from you, but also from having different life circumstances to increase the robustness of the conversation) and just have a half an hour discussion with that person just asking them what their experiences with WP.

The second thing that I suggest they do is to ask questions. And so I’d encourage them to ask at least five questions over the course of the 30 minute conversation to actually ensure that they’re actually engaging. I think part of WP is that you have the privilege of not needing to engage in this discourse because it doesn’t really affect you – or it does affect you but you are the beneficiary of that sort of dichotomy, so finding a way to change that experience for POCs necessitates an authentic engagement with the opposite side of that experience.

The third and last thing that I would recommend is that they find some way to take a more active role in dismantling the institution that perpetuates WP. I think that changing hearts and minds is great, but at the core this is an institutional issue and the institution is what allows these issues to be perpetuated over time and WP people are the ones that are best positioned to change the nature of these institutions such that they don’t perpetuate WP anymore. I believe engaging with these people who are negatively effected by WP and using your benefits as means as dismantling those systems is the most productive thing that you can do. 

A final note: I think I also experienced white privilege as mediocrity. I found that there was this aire that they didn’t need to try as hard and perhaps it was a function that I needed to try harder and the fact that my friends of color and I always tried our best because we knew that if we didn’t we would be perceived a certain way. It was often easy to outshine WP people, but they didn’t really care because they didn’t need to try that hard. 

To do a post like this was extremely important to me. On one hand, I have so many friends who have helped make me aware of what’s really going on in our society and I can’t stand to sit back and let this injustice perpetuate. On the other hand, I know so many people and have so many family members that are blind to the reality, that I hope this post brings them closer to the truth by examining the real experiences of Ani, George and Dan. Their experiences only grace the surface, so at the bottom of this post I have featured a glossary of terms and other articles you can read to further understand what’s happening every single day to people who may not look like you.

For me, you already know I’m white, male, cis, and queer. If you recall this post, you’ll know I’m also very, very Italian. I’ve grown with the perception that I’m not really white. Being ethnically Italian may mean that I may not technically be 100% white (please do your research about colonization and migration of the Italian peninsula, particularly the south where I am from, for facts), but in the eyes of society I’m still white. I just tan better than others. So many people I know still have the backwards idea that white people are treated poorly in our society or that because they have a touch of spice, they too are oppressed. Sorry boo, you’re not – at least not nearly as much by comparison.

With that, I do want to explain the concept of social capital with a real life story as told through my mother. When my family came to this country, they came here with nothing. My mom essentially raised herself, her mother and her little sister. Her father left when she was 5. She was on government assistance. She had almost nothing, but what she did have was the social capital as a white woman. With the boost of that, in college and at job interviews she was able to push herself up the ladder in record time (she was an VP by 25). Her social capital didn’t do all the work, but it definitely helped. She didn’t have people questioning her skill set like a POC would. I know this for a fact as one of my closest POC friends who grew up almost the opposite as my mother and is questioned of her skill set on a regular basis. Social capital can go a long way.

And while I have experienced some discrimination as a queer person, those experiences far outweigh the more outward and frequent ones that my black and brown peers experience on a regular basis – especially in the school system.

This post was inspired not only by seeing the injustice happening at Yale and other prominent universities but also taking the “controversial” BU Professor Saida Grundy’s Sociology of Race and Ethnicity course. I believe all people in our society need to be aware of the injustices people face on both a macro and micro level.

I also believe all people should be able to achieve success based on their intellect, hard work and determination as well as be afforded equal privileges regardless of what you look like or where you come from.

I hope you do, too.

-V

P.S. Did you think I forgot that Not Vincenzo is first a fashion blog? Yes? Well, pictures below. I worked with one of best friends and go to photographers, Kelsey, to shoot at both Choate Rosemary Hall and Yale University – alma maters to me, Ani and George. My face is not in any of the shots to represent that all types of people deserve to occupy these spaces, not just what has been prescribed throughout history. The look, however, does feed into the typical preppy atmosphere: loafers, bright shorts, layered polos with popped collars. Please don’t allow the photos to overshadow the larger goal of this post, but rather supplement.

Photography by Kelsey Quartuccio

Glossary:

  • Systemic Racism describes forms of racism which are structured into political and social institutions. It occurs when organisations, institutions or governments discriminate, either deliberately or indirectly, against certain groups of people to limit their rights.
  • Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.
  • White Privilege a set of advantages and/or immunities that white people benefit from on a daily basis beyond those common to all others. White privilege can exist without white people’s conscious knowledge of its presence and it helps to maintain the racial hierarchy in this country.
  • Social Capital is the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively.
  • Social Mobility is the ability of individuals or groups to move upward or downward in status based on wealth, occupation, education, or some other social variable. Note: American society operates on the principle that an individual’s achievements can be rewarded by upward social mobility.

Articles Worth Reading:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s