Checking My Privilege

This is an old piece, but given the current times, I’ve seen a lot of conversations about white privilege, systemic oppression, and marginalization within the adoption community. My thoughts on the issue of privilege have deepened since I wrote this piece during my sophomore year of college, but I thought I would share it as is to hopefully resonate with any college-aged adoptees (or younger) beginning to think about race dynamics and privilege. College is a time for many young adults that generates a lot of thought about racial identity and healing, but I know that current national conversations are catalyzing these thoughts in younger adoptees, as well.

Checking My Privilege

Originally published in Gazillion Voices Magazine, 2014

At my liberal college, one of our slogans that can be heard on a daily basis is “Check your privilege.” Whether it be male privilege, Christian privilege, heterosexual privilege, or white privilege, most people have benefited in some ways by these systems that actively work to oppress other groups of people. It is a privilege to be able to forget that these hierarchies of power exist, and the extent to which we discuss privilege at Macalester seems to make up for all of the time some students have been able to live in ignorant bliss. 

As a person of color growing up in the United States, white privilege is something I have gained a strong understanding of through lived experience.  To me, white privilege means not having your citizenship and national loyalty questioned by co-workers, peers, and even strangers on the street. White privilege is not being stopped, hassled, and embarrassed every time you’re in the airport. White privilege means that questions after a speech or presentation are about the content of your words and not about how long you’ve been studying English. White privilege means never experiencing xenophobia over an ethnic first, middle, or last name. White privilege means that your words and actions are a reflection of only yourself, not your entire race. White privilege means not being followed in a store because of the stereotype that Asians are sneaky or that Black people are crooks. White privilege means having large Western eyes with a double eyelid and never being asked if you’ve considered surgery to “fix” them. White privilege means never being told, “Jeez, it was just a joke,” when you are hurt by a friend’s unintentionally racist comment. 

In these ways, I can see very clearly how white privilege has worked against me as a minority in the United States. In an Environmental Justice course I’m taking this semester, our class discussed the placement of LULUs – locally undesirable land use (i.e., toxic or radioactive waste disposal sites, hazardous carcinogens) in minority, predominantly Black neighborhoods and the disproportionate tracking of children of color in special needs programs at school. It was during this discussion that I began to think about the ways in which I have been advantaged by white privilege – not my own, but my parents. When I came to the United States, I was brought into a white neighborhood that didn’t contain any LULUs. Attaining citizenship was a breeze for me because of my parents’ statuses as white American citizens. And when my parents had concerns about my education, their thoughts were taken seriously by the school as white people. Much of the time, it was not only my own hard work and eagerness to learn alone, but my white parents’ advocacy that helped place me in gifted and talented programs and enabled me to be on the honors/AP track. These programs are definitely what prepared me to be at a rigorous and competitive school like Macalester College.

It is now quite apparent to me that, though I don’t have white privilege, I have benefited significantly from the white privilege of my parents. One of the first attempts to describe this concept was the idea of “unpacking the invisible knapsack (McIntosh, 1988).” Through my growing up years, my parents have been able to pull out some items from their knapsacks and give me a free pass when “white by association” was good enough. However, this doesn’t work even when I’m with them at the airport, where I’m consistently hassled or when I go to towns in the Appalachia region where my presence doubles the population of Asians in the area. 

I realize, as an increasingly independent young adult, the privileges I receive from my white parents will become much less in the years ahead.  The prospect that I have been advantaged in some very important ways by my parents’ white privilege and will now have to face the challenges presented to me as a person of color, separate from my white family, is somewhat terrifying. Though I have experienced certain racial obstacles by myself already, it feels as though a safety-net that was loose, but able to support me in many situations, is no longer under me. As an adult, my Asian face, that was somewhat hidden before by a translucent veil of whiteness, is now fully exposed. 

I have just begun to understand the complexities of these systems of oppression. I know I chose the right school because this type of intellectual and personal growth has been encouraged and developed so much since my entrance to college. When I question how I could have both been helped and hurt by white privilege, it is the same type of reflection that I must conduct when I think about the ways in which I have both gained and lost so much through my adoption. The ability to not think in simple polarities has shaped and defined my maturation and has been a liberating discovery. It would be wrong of me to suggest that white privilege has only harmed me. Likewise, it would be deceitful to imply that my adoption experience has been purely positive.  

I think it is important to not wallow in self-guilt at receiving some benefits unjustly, and instead try to better recognize the dualities of these systems.  I originally began asking the question, Does my voice as a person of color speaking against white privilege have less merit because I have also benefitted from it? Upon further reflection, I would have to say, no. Being a person of color in the United States is hard. Though my parents, neighborhood, and school were perhaps more “white” than if I had grown up in an Asian family, those all presented their own unique challenges. Trying to eradicate systems of privilege and power shouldn’t be about pitting people against each other and discrediting certain voices as “white-washed” or less valuable. I believe we should work and rise together as we create awareness and seek the privileges we lack.

Though I don’t have white privilege, I am certainly privileged in many ways. I have class privilege, heterosexual privilege, and education privilege. Like my parents who have channeled their white privilege to benefit me, I think it is my responsibility to realize the ways in which I am privileged and use those privileges to be an ally to those who don’t have the same advantages.  On a larger scale, I feel morally obligated to work to eliminate these hierarchical systems of power. America is far from a place of equality, so the journey will inevitably be long. But, my aspiration for a more just country drives me to continue so that some future generation will see my dream as a realized one. 

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