Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Problem With Privilege

This summer, I was invited to a reception to meet "alumni of color" who had graduated from my law school. Frankly, I looked at the names of the listed alumni and thought the event would be a waste of my time. Many of the surnames were Latino, and--before learning my lesson for good that the people who are willing to be there for you often won't be the ones who belong to your "group"--I was interested in meeting black alumni, not "we are the world" or "fake minorities" aka "we will hire everyone but blacks" alumni. But I weighed the options--skip out on work and be bored at a reception, stay at work and be bored at work. Even the day of the reception, I went back and forth.

I attended the reception. There were very few students from my school there when I got there, but we were all minorities. There was me. There was this Asian girl who, during the school years, never seemed to me to understand that she was Asian and had never bothered to acknowledge my existence until we were in this small room in which it was a bit harder to ignore each other. Then there were the gay guys, one of whom I'd thought was hot the whole time he was at my school (he has graduated). He seemed to be there mainly to try his best to either get drunk or get a jumpstart on getting drunk. He'd never bothered to acknowledge me before, either, but he seemed to remember seeing me around. More students started trickling in, but we were still all minorities. It was great this way, because the gathering was small and you could easily get around the room and meet alumni and have good conversations and exchange contact info.

Somewhere along the way, I look around the room and notice more and more whites pouring in. The first few whites, I thought it was weird but it was no big deal. But eventually, the room was packed with white students from my school outnumbering all of the minorities from various minority groups put together. You couldn't hear anybody you tried to talk to. You couldn't move around. The point of the event, which was for minority students at my school to network with minority alumni from my school, became pointless and unfeasible. The whites just came in as if they had been invited (I don't know if this was true, but the formal invite indicated that it was only for students of color, basically--I don't know if someone else did invite them) and as if the event was supposed to be some sort of Chicago get-together rather than something for a group of people who never get opportunities like the one our school attempted to give us that day--opportunities white kids get all the time, whether they realize it or not. And, just like that, that opportunity for us was essentially gone all because these white students took over without a care.

You can't even begin to imagine how pissed I was. And I wondered if I was justified. But I couldn't understand how I wouldn't be. The legal field is really not easy for minorities, from getting into law school to getting to the top of the profession--nothing is easy about it for us. And one of the things that we really have the hardest time with is finding people who are right where we want to be in that field willing to give us the time of day, be friendly to us, offer advice and mentorship, guide us, etc. As I said, oftentimes, the minorities act like they don't give a damn about the minorities coming up. That's just how, especially, black people get when they "make it." As I wrote in my last entry, these are the same blacks who, in college and law school, were running around campus talking about who was "black enough" and who wasn't "black enough."

I'm not saying it's easy for white law students. I am saying it's easier, though. One of the reasons why I think racism is never going away is because we are just not going to be able to erase the inclination to--and the harmlessness people see in the inclination to--flock to people we think are "like me." This inclination, though, manifests itself in many things, from friendship and dating to hiring and helpfulness. We look at the shallow things, like skin color and sex, to say, initially, who is similar to us. A small-scale example is how one of my "clients" this summer kept commenting how women like shoes in a "you know" kind of way to me and one of my bosses--and I don't know how my boss interpreted the comment, but I kind of sat there like, "Why is she assuming--and insisting--that we understand her love for shoes just because we're all women?" I like shoes and everything, but they're not "to die for" in my life and I definitely don't love to shop. Sex is, and has never been, a bonding point for me. If you read my blog, clearly race and sexual orientation haven't exactly been bonding points for me with other people, either. However, these things are bonding points for the average person in the US.

As I said, this manifests itself in hiring and helpfulness. This means it's harder for minorities to get jobs when you have one of these average people doing the hiring, and it's harder for minorities to find people on the job and/or in their field to take them by the hand, show them the ropes, tell them all the important little secrets of success and ins and outs, etc--in other words, be your friend, be your big sister or brother, be your mentor. White people get these things more often, and they take these things for granted because...well, they're white. They don't know other people aren't getting treated the same way. They don't think it's about race, but about something else, such as how you click with the people on the job or in that field. They don't realize that whether or not you click with anyone on the job/field may very well, at least on one person's side, relate to race, just as many other things in our society do. Obviously, people who belong to groups that are less privileged, such as women, understand that a little better.

The thing was, though, that a lot of these white people who barged into this reception--if not, all of them--were white women. And they acted like this event was for them, too, like it was an event for anyone from our school to come and just have a good time, eat and drink alcohol. I really had to hold myself back from writing either my career counselor or the students themselves who showed up about how disrespectful and naive I found this. I mean, these were white women who consider themselves "liberals," "good white people" and so on. But I feel like, even if they were invited, a white person who really has the first inkling about what an event like that one meant just wouldn't have come. These are people who are less aware than they think they are.

The problem with privilege, see, is people who are privileged often don't realize they are. And I suffer from this, too, from time to time. I have to remind myself that I'm not poor, that I'm from a nation that is considered a Superpower, that I'm not a gay black male or transgendered or transsexual. I do have some privilege. And just as it's annoying for me to hear/see/listen to white women complain about how unfairly they are treated or hear/see/listen to white gays do the same, being a queer black female, I'm sure it's similarly annoying for people from other nations, people who could never even begin to think of attending law school and others to hear/see/listen to me complain. I started a blog initially intended to be mainly about my problems as someone who is not out, someone who cannot define her sexual orientation...and I talk about being ignored as a black person and alienated as someone who isn't anything "enough." And, yet, transgendered and transsexual people and their issues are ignored, or lumped under gay and lesbian issues but not really adequately addressed or acknowledged as separate and different. That's one example.

I have to always remember my place in the world. I'm down on the bottom rungs, sure, but there are people on lower rungs. I've created a joke about it, even, though it's truly not a joke. The joke is that even if I do realize that I was really meant to be man, I wouldn't dare have a sex-change operation because I wouldn't want to be a gay black man in this country. That's to remind me that I'm "better" than that as I stand right now, even if I realize that I'm a black lesbian. Being a lesbian isn't as repulsive to people as being gay is, and throw black in the mix and...well, you've got nearly the worst thing you can be in America, only second in my mind to being obviously/openly transgendered/transsexual...which is something that even if a person can accept homosexuality, many still have a much harder time accepting transsexuality. I know people who are like this--they are nearly 100% fine with lesbianism, they think being gay is gross, and they don't even want to think about being trans. Not only guys, but many women, too, have this problem.

Part of me feels as if an education for these white kids who ruined the reception is in order. Another part of me feels like, "What's the point?" It's done, for one thing. For two, even with "liberal" whites, when you point out to whites that they've wronged someone racially, they really can't take it. They'd rather their image in their heads as always the good guys and not like the "others" and that America is not like that anymore stay in tact. You're making up stuff. Or you're "sensitive."

All is not lost for me, because I was lucky enough to meet a lawyer this summer who has had my back since the day we met. I've mentioned her in the past few entries I've written--I think I need to give her a name, because I will probably write about her more. Let's see here...hehe, okay, so I'm going to call her what my mother said this woman is to me when I told my mother about her--Angel. Angel is one of the bosses I had at work this summer, the one who is white and Asian and is, admittedly, my new crush. How could I not have a crush on her--someone who meets you and decides to be there for you for absolutely no reason. Aside from that, she's gorgeous, brilliant, great personality, talented, easy to talk to and we have lots in common...I just don't understand why I can't find queer women like her. But I think it was really just realizing how there she's been for me and how there she's willing to be for me that has really made me fall like a ton of bricks. I can't help but smile when I think about it. Nobody other than family members has ever been there for me the way she has. I don't get it, but I really am grateful and am definitely lucky to have someone so awesome take an interest in making sure I succeed.

And she's not black. But she knows what I'm talking about in terms of how hard it is in the legal field for those lacking some privilege--which might be why she wants to help me so much--because she's been there. She hasn't really been there as a racial minority--she has a white surname and looks white, although if you look at her you can see that she's not just white. She's been there as a woman, though.

Still, my mother just had to ask, "Is she a sista?"

Nope, but I should have said, "She's my sister."