OPINION: Check your privilege, Urban

While I can’t possibly address every single type of inequality, in this article I will reflect on a few types of privilege in our community to help spark conversation outside the classroom.

Privilege is dissected methodically and academically at Urban. While Urban does an excellent job educating students about the idea of privilege as a social inequity: an unearned access to power based on membership in a dominant social group, privilege as it appears in social life is rarely discussed.

In forums and affinity space discussions, students are told to “check their privilege,” but the phrase has become a joke thrown around at parties and in casual conversations. There is a blatant lack of awareness of privilege in social circles, despite the popularity of clubs such as White Privilege Awareness (WPA), and the prominence of Multiculti’s Month of Understanding.

Though WPA has certainly brought more recognition of the concept of white privilege, Urban students still don’t fully comprehend how white privilege affects the the community around them. My service learning classes have been full of distracted students who joke and shop online rather than engaging in difficult conversations about privilege and power, and there’s nothing I can do to make them listen. It’s a personal choice to not be attentive and learn, but the consequences of doing so are extremely powerful.

I hear too often in the hallway sassy southern accents mocking weaves with high pitched squeals of “giiiiiiirl,” and see way too many sombreros and rice hats in yearbook photos or at parties (clearly a mockery of Mexican and Asian culture). At our fall dance, a white senior girl yelled across the Gumption to the DJs to “play more black music.” These are all examples of microaggressions, a term popularized by Columbia Professor Derald Sue as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color,” but has been expanded to include comments targeting all oppressed groups.

Urban students might not hear or experience blatant and hurtful racism, sexism, homophobia, or any other form of obvious discrimination, but microaggressions at Urban are all too common. No one wants to be the one to point out casual discrimination when it happens, and risk the label of pc (political correctness) police, so hurtful comments go seemingly unnoticed. But it is privilege to ignore this casual discrimination simply because it might not apply to you.

White privilege is often easy to recognize, but it can be much more difficult to discern economic privilege at a glance.

It is important to note that all Urban students have a significant amount of economic privilege in the fact that they attend Urban, an independent school with tuition and fees totaling $38,720, more than the median American annual income. Although 28 percent of Urban’s student body is on financial aid of some sort, the majority of Urban students come from families who are able to pay the hefty price tag for an Urban education.

Economic microaggressions also appear often at Urban, but are similarly ignored. When an affluent classmate offhandedly comments that their parents “worked hard for their money,” it implies that working class parents do not work as hard and are to blame for their socioeconomic status. Comments like “how have you not been to Europe/Hawaii/Mexico yet?” are common around Urban, even though the answer might be that a family can’t afford it, even though the answer might be that a family can’t afford it.

Economic privilege becomes increasingly apparent as an upperclassman, when students begin to attend parties, drive to school, and start to think about college and expensive post-graduation Europe trips. Having a fake ID to buy alcohol is a privilege that certainly isn’t discussed in Service Learning or Health class, but isn’t ever brought up outside of the classroom either. An anonymous survey of 5 seniors said that most fakes cost somewhere between $120 and $150 and often are ordered in pairs of two, so that the total cost is between $240-$300.

This leaves an element of Urban’s party culture that is inaccessible to those who simply can’t buy into it – who can’t afford to buy a fake, buy drugs or alcohol, or pay for a ride home after a party through Uber or Lyft.

Economic privilege is especially discernible in the college process. Susan Lee, Urban’s Director of College Counseling, said that financial aid can be a limiting factor in where an Urban student chooses to go to college. But Lee notes that the college conversation at Urban differs from the conversation at most other schools, saying “at other schools (financial aid is) just part of the college admissions picture … and people are comfortable being open about that.” At Urban, however, financial aid is rarely discussed.

Part of the reason Urban students don’t want to talk about privilege is because it means acknowledging that they have unearned benefits or that they feel awkward pointing out that some students do not have the same resources.

No one chooses to have privilege. Many understandably are reluctant to admit that they  haven’t succeeded solely through their own accomplishments.But that doesn’t mean that we should shy away from the conversation.

Conversations about these touchy and often socially taboo topics are hard, but they are so necessary to start to dismantle the ways that ingrained privilege rules the society we live in. It shouldn’t be solely the job of the oppressed to bring up exactly how they are systematically disadvantaged.

First things first: it’s not your fault that you have privilege. It can be easy to let a gut reaction be one of paralyzing guilt, or guilty defensiveness, but guilt cannot possibly inspire personal change, much less change for those around you.

Avoiding the conversation in order to sidestep your own guilt about privilege, or complaining about how “Urban talks about this too much”  is not an adequate way of dealing with the issue. Urban or the world at large can’t talk about it enough. Confining the discussion of privilege to the classroom, only reinforces the idea that privilege doesn’t really affect our community.

One of Urban’s core values is to “embrace diverse backgrounds … and to prepare students for lives in a multicultural society,” but the school can’t force the students to do this.

So seriously, Urban, check your privilege.