Last semester, our history class trooped out of the classroom into a nearby courtyard for a class activity on privilege. You know, the one that goes, “If you have immediate family members who are doctors, lawyers, or similar professionals, take a step forward. If you had over forty books in your home when you were a child, take a step forward.” I advanced steadily, my discomfort growing with each step. I was so happy when the last question was about public transportation. A bus rider in Los Angeles, I hopped back as far as I could.
I knew that my education and my family’s socioeconomic background afforded me a certain amount of privilege, but thought these were balanced by my being a darker-skinned Filipina immigrant. But that day in the courtyard, I was struck at how physically distant I was from many of my fellow students, some of whom had burrowed into the bordering lush, green hedges.
I’ve been thinking about that class activity, especially in light of recent discussions on race and white privilege in the feminist blogosphere. Initially, I felt the class activity did not completely apply to me. Many of the questions dealt specifically about race privilege. “Have you ever been harassed because of your race?” “Were you ever denied a job because of your skin color?” I grew up in Manila, I pointed out to my partner M, so I did not get to take those two steps back. The “privileges” did not apply to me.
Of course they did, M replied. He said that I was not a Mangyan or Aeta, or anyone of the other indigenous peoples in the Philippines.
I felt self-defensiveness well up in my chest. I am not a mestiza, and I do not have an ounce of Spanish colonizer blood. I was a student activist in college. I was not unaware of the issues affecting indigenous and other marginalized populations. And yet, I was completely oblivious to the advantages afforded by my upper-middle class background and kape-colored skin. My parents were professionals, so I learned to speak English at an early age, which in turn practically guaranteed admission to good schools and later, university. When I go back to Manila for visits, I could shop and go around without being harassed by security, because I did not “look” or “smell like a Muslim.”
It was an uncomfortable process, teasing out how many of my life achievements were inextricably tied to my socioeconomic and even race privileges. It was a difficult lesson to learn. If my astonishment at last semester’s class activity is any indication, it is a lesson I still have to keep re-learning.
So I do understand the self-defensive knee-jerk reaction that many may feel upon reading material like Jessica Hoffman’s “On Prisons, Borders, Safety, and Privilege: An Open Letter to White Feminist.” It stings to be confronted by your ignorance, by things that you failed to do or failed to know. But after the initial sting subsides, what can you do? Sure, you can dismiss the critiques of women of color. You can accuse them of infighting, of being mean and rude, or of being racists themselves.
Or you could listen. And read. Or at the very least, reflect and think, about your own privileged positions in American and Western society. There is still a lot that we all need to learn and re-learn.