Disclaimer: I formally recognize economic, racial, knowledge, gender, and every other sort of privilege as ongoing problems that we should all strive to become more cognizant of, as they have and continue to create inequality that provides for unjust pain and suffering. This article is my opinion on privilege on a much smaller scale within my personal experience.
I recently attended an event focused on discussing privilege and diversity at Cornell. Not only did it reinforce my knowledge of advantages that I was already aware of, but it taught me of others I hadn’t known were ravaging people’s lives. I found myself nodding, clapping, and truly loving the candid and safe atmosphere that was being created with each new voice… up to a point.
I’ve found conferences such as these to always be empowering and eye-opening, until you realize that no one is searching for a solution. At this point, the dialogue does not head towards an ending involving a satisfactory resolution of spreading more awareness about the problems marginalized people faced. Instead, it quickly devolves into an exchange of, for lack of a better word, complaints that encourage the sentiment of being complacent in our misery.
For example, I often found that a person would describe a situation where they interpreted themselves as the recipient of quasi-malicious ignorance or some pointed swaggering of privilege. Someone mentioned a teacher that always talked about personal experiences at luxurious places as references to class material; this made her feel left behind in comparison to others who understood the references. Understandable; the surprising part, however, was that this person then said, “Now, I might as well just give up and stop listening because I’m not going to understand anyway.”
Another person recounted a time where she was asked about something she did not have. She felt as if this was a reflection of how the rest of her experience at school would be, constantly feeling like she didn’t have enough. One person in the whole classroom of people offered a different perspective and said gently, “Perhaps that was to make sure you were prepared for the classes that need this specific object, not to flout something you didn’t have.” Unlike all of the other responses, there were no claps. No snaps. No expressive nods of agreement. Those actions only occurred when someone told a story of negativity.
I also found when I spoke about how I saw my disadvantages as advantages as they made me stronger, it was treated with the same impassivity as this girl’s outlook. Stories of discontent were always only followed by other stories of discontent. People should absolutely bring their negative experiences to light, but I was curious as to why they were only discussing these feelings and frustrations now, instead of then with the person of question. Equality should be pursued, but if in that pursuit no answer is proposed, no positive possibilities debated, isn’t this a discussion or a gathering of people who aren’t happy and don’t plan to be, because they feel as though their situations are permanent?
The spiral of depression continued. Someone spoke about how the Greek System would never take them because of their background and of the academic and social privilege there. When this person was speaking, I carefully watched members of the group I knew were of diverse backgrounds and happy within their sororities and fraternities. Some sank in their seats, some looked down, and all were silent. The Spiral of Silence is the silence one keeps due to fear of social isolation for unpopular opinion; this was an example at its prime. I knew people within this group who felt as though the Greek system was the most welcoming place on this campus, and yet they didn’t offer their perspective, or advice or even qualified agreement. And that silence is where the problem lies.
The refusal to conversationally confront those who hurt us is a plague that affects us all. The Four Agreements, the Oprah-recommended best selling book by Don Miguel Ruiz, speaks of four agreements that we must make with ourselves in order to free ourselves from limitation and unhappiness in all aspects in our life. The third agreement — “don’t make assumptions” — is expanded upon by the following:
“Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.”
The Spiral of Silence will fuck you over. It will make you internalize problems that could have been resolved instantaneously. Talk to your professor. Talk to your peers. Defend the Greek system. If you must assume the worst, assume benign, solvable ignorance. We need less assumptions, more conversation. Who knows? Through conversations such as these you may find that someone who oozes apparent privilege is actually miserable. We all have our baggage, just that, for some people, it’s more visible. Everyone has the right to be a part of the conversation. Try to dispel inherent misconceptions. Someone could have all the money in the world but absent parents. Someone may have all the beauty in the world but an abusive home. Someone may have every friend imaginable, but cannot look at themselves in the mirror. Even if none of this is the case, it is the luck of the draw, the lottery system that is the world. They didn’t get to choose their privilege just the same as you didn’t get to choose your disadvantages. That does not mean those we perceive as conventionally privileged don’t have a right to be a part of the conversation; arguably, they may be the ones who need the most to be involved. Maybe a conversation with them will allow you to see all of the experiences you’ve had that they have not, and allow you a mindset that will allow you to embrace your situation rather than detest it. This brings me to my next point.
I recently interviewed the extremely smart, strong, beautiful Angoori Rana, which will be coming soon to an article near you. For her, her proudest trait is being a woman of color. When I asked her why diversity was so important to her, she stated as if it were obvious, “A life without diversity is a life without color.” She went on to talk about how her background and the struggles her family and how had made every adversary here seem simple in comparison. Whenever she panicked, she remembered that she’s been through worse. Her disadvantages beat her up, but as a result of those injuries, she is now her best and strongest self, with a gratitude towards her parents deeper than the sea.
As a first-generation, Chinese-Armenian, female student with still fairly little knowledge of her major, I have faced disadvantages. But every weakness has shaped who I am and taught me to work harder and strive to get what I deserve. Each weakness has taught me the value of persistence, collaboration, diversity, and so much more; I love each and every one of my faults because they are what helped me find my strengths.
As I was sitting in that room, listening to people recount the privilege that was reigning around them, I saw people’s faces fall more and more. It shook me, because I remember when I used to think like that. I remember the feeling of utter defeat, and how easy it was to believe that because of my circumstances, I would always be ten steps behind everyone else. But this was before I found that everything is about choice and perspective (embed happy now – previous article). You can either view your impediments as just that, or you can choose to let them bolster you forward and allow you to develop the skills necessary to handle any new environment, something people who have always been comfortable will never have. Do not be set in your discontent. The most impressive people are the ones who have come from nothing.
If you feel as though a teacher is being ignorant of your circumstances in what they discuss in class, or that a peer is not understanding your perspective of a situation, do not stand for it. That pit in your stomach doesn’t need to be a reflection of how you will feel forever. Show that peer how you feel and ask what they meant with that statement; give them a chance to show you that they are ignorant not bad. Find your community of people, come up with solutions, and go talk to your professor after class so you don’t need to always feel ten steps behind. Ignorance is not necessarily malicious, and if you perceive that it is, you have the responsibility of having the open-minded conversation necessary to eradicate that ignorance.
You are stronger than you know, and you can do almost anything you put your mind to, but the first step is to believe that you have that power. Inequality and segregation are irrefutably real; people flock to those they perceive as similar to them in both appearance and status. That gap you feel is cavernous, but it is only deepened by our own perception of its depth. It is not impassible. It can be bridged, but only by those who are brave enough to take that risk. The fact that you’re at Cornell is proof that you have already overcome thousands of obstacles to create that bridge.
The world is cruel. We live in a society that still discriminates in careers and in life. But it is changing, and you can be a part of the change starting with how you see your disadvantages now. You will have to put in more work than others; that is an unfortunate truth. But you don’t need to see this fact as a stumbling block, but an edge to being your best self that those you perceive as privileged will never have. Do not be silent. Embrace your disadvantages. Become the person that only you can be.
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