I didn’t understand what privilege was for a long time. What rights did they have that we did not? Was it easier for Caucasians and straight males to get jobs, to attain and economic mobility? How did I even know if I had privilege?
It’s a difficult concept to understand, and it is not one that we can fully grasp quickly. I truly only begun to understood its magnitude after reading Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies, when she described white privilege as “an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear and blank checks.”
Those with privilege are blind to it, unaware that their knapsacks are fitted snugly on their shoulders. They assume that everyone carries the same backpack, equipped with the tools and provisions necessary to survive and navigate the world.
Now, what are the literal manifestations of these metaphorical compasses and maps? How do they present themselves in our day-to-day lives?
Privilege is being able to walk into the nearest Walgreens and buy a Band-Aid in your skin color.
Privilege means you can flip on the television and easily find a program with a person of your race as the main character.
Privilege is being able to shop, undisturbed, in a grocery store without having someone constantly ask you if you need help because they think you’re stealing.
Privilege is not constantly, uncannily being the victim of a “random search” at the airport each time you travel.
Privilege means you are not worried about your actions and decisions reflecting on your race, as a whole.
Privilege is feeling comfortable keeping your hood on at night, without fear of being seen as a thug or criminal.
Privilege is not panicking when a police officer approaches you when you haven’t done anything wrong.
Privilege means when you get accepted to college or get a job, your success will not be attributed to “Affirmative Action” instead of your academic merit.
It means you can leave and enter this country at ease, without having to worry about a policy or ban affecting your ability to return home. It means you can walk into a hospital and feel assured that you will be treated with proper respect. It means you can hold hands with the person you love in public, without fear of becoming victim to slurs. It means you have never had your race compared to animals, like apes or monkeys.
It is far more simple to stay blind to your privilege, to ignore it, to let the knapsack stay invisible. However, it requires a great deal of self-awareness and candidness to let yourself feel the straps of the backpack digging into your shoulders, to thank your good fortune that you were born with it.
I am not privileged. As an Indian-American woman, I was subject to harmful stereotypes. I was told that I could never be as intelligent or successful as a man. I was told that Indian-American women should aspire to be wives and mothers, not engineers. I was told that girls could not like sports, that Indians are dirty and smell like curry, that Hinduism wasn’t even a real religion, that people of my race were stealing all the American jobs, that Indians were only capable of buying local 7/11s and Dairy Queens.
My race was judged by the television characters of Baljeet in Phineas and Ferb, Raj in The Big Bang Theory, and Ravi in Jesse. Each one of these characters had an embarrassingly inaccurate, thick accent and a flat personality. They were socially inept and scientifically inclined, and I only recently realized how much more representation my, and all other non-white races, need.
Where are the female Indian basketball players, lawyers, and activists in television? Why are the only Indian characters in television manifestations of insulting stereotypes?
I am not privileged because it’s pretty hard to find Band-Aids that match my skin color. I am not privileged because I take extra care to deodorize and wear perfume because I don’t want people thinking that Indians are smelly. I am not privileged because I like talking on the phone because the person on the other end can’t see my skin; I don't have an accent, so I sound like a white person, and I’m treated as such.
That being said, I am privileged.
I experience the benefits of middle-class, heterosexual, cis privilege. I have never worried about not having food on the table, about discussing my romantic interests with my friends, about filling out my gender on surveys, about being able to afford to attend university, to buy a new winter coat. I did not have to be concerned about gang violence in my neighborhood. I did not have to drop out of school to have a job to support my family. I was blessed with a supportive community and above all, a supportive family, who assured that I had a comfortable, shielded upbringing. They told me I could be anything, do anything, regardless of my economic situation, my race, or my sex.
I never stressed about having my hood on at night, being followed in a grocery store, or of unjustly losing my life to the hands of the police.
I am privileged, I am not privileged. I can only beg you to ask yourself the same question,
Are you privileged?