On Privileges And Praise I Did Not Earn

I told a story on Twitter yesterday that got some good feedback so I thought I’d share it here as well.

The prompt was seeing several people respond to the “shithole” comments from Trump with comments, “How is that racist?” and me trying to talk about how racism is not about the specific words, “White people are better than black people.” It’s about attitudes and systems designed to hold our black and brown brothers and sisters down and help those of us with white skin rise.

And here is my story.

I got pregnant when I was 18 years old. I married E’s Dad and we used various government services to survive while we both pursued college degrees. And I was terrified at first until I realized HOW MUCH ATTENTION PEOPLE GIVE TEEN PREGNANT GIRLS. I mean! People were SO PROUD of me for “keeping the baby” and for “making it work” and I was constantly being praised and given hand-me-downs and assisted in 100 different ways. But it wasn’t enough, and I did have to use government support programs and that is where my story starts it’s point: I always bring up my use of government programs when people make blanket judgements about people on WIC or Welfare or Medicaid or Government Housing. And do you know how people respond to my reminder:

You were exactly the type of person those programs are there to support!

And I’ll be honest, I believed that for a very long time. I used those programs and I got two college degrees, even after a divorce and becoming a single Mom, and I ended up being a contributing member of a society that feeds back into the system that supported me.

THIS IS WHAT IT IS MADE FOR! PEOPLE LIKE ME!

But let me tell you all of the differences between me and many black women in the SAME situation.

  • PERCEPTION. Someone saw me and my big belly and my white skin and my food vouchers and they smiled and were patient and thought kind thoughts about the brave girl in front of them: A MOM AT SUCH A YOUNG AGE! But she’s doing it! And they were patient and kind. But then you have a black woman with the SAME big belly using the SAME food vouchers and she is MILKING THE SYSTEM. But can I tell you a secret? I was TRYING to milk the system. I had no desire to work. (Regular readers here know that I call my years age 18-24 my SHITTY ZOOT years.) I eventually had to when I became a single Mom, but I used every privilege I could to put that off for as long as possible.
    Yet I was perceived as using the system for what it was designed for, unlike my black counterpart.
  • GENERATIONAL POVERTY. My aunt Laura – who had most recently had small children in my family – donated SO MUCH STUFF to me when I got pregnant. Playpens and clothes and toys and SO MUCH STUFF. My Dad helped us with rent. (Remind me to tell you the story of that decision some day.) E’s paternal grandmother brought us stuff ALL the time: Food, clothes, etc. She would even take us to get groceries a few times a year. And all of that was possible because we came from middle class families. No one was rich, but all of our family owned homes, had jobs, and every little bit that everyone helped meant ONE MORE THING we did NOT have to spend money on. AND THAT ADDS UP. You don’t realize how much of an advantage you have just having family who can give you $100 at Christmas, or who have friends with rental properties who will cut you a deal, or people who will buy you VHS tapes of Barney for your kid to watch so you can do your homework. Generational poverty is a much bigger issue in black communities because of how our country impaired them in buying homes and properties for SO LONG. Among other hurdles which you can read about here: The racial wealth gap: How African-Americans have been shortchanged out of the materials to build wealth. I can honestly say that if we had not both come from middle class families, college would have not been an option for both of us, and maybe not either of us.
  • DREAMS OF THE FUTURE. I grew up assuming I would go to college. That is how I was raised. That is how the people I went to school with were raised. So when I got pregnant, I just assumed we’d make college still work no matter what. I had real world pictures in my head of what being an “adult” looked like because that’s what I grew up surrounded by. Having white teachers encouraged my dreams as well, and they are the majority by far over the percentage of students of the same color. According to a 2011 report, 40% of schools had NO black teachers at all. This is depressing considering all it takes is one Black teacher to make students more likely to graduate high school and attend college. My cousins all went to college, my school only discussed college as an option, so I had the privilege of not doubting that possibility, not to mention the systemic privileges of simply having white skin. AND EVEN IF A TEEN BLACK MOM GOES TO COLLEGE her chances of getting a good job are slimmer.
  • COMMUNITY SUPPORT THAT LOOKED LIKE ME. Because of all of the three things before, I was able to be surrounded by Professors and students who encouraged me to stay in college, even go back for a second Bachelor’s degree. Graduation rates are still significantly lower for students of color. So even of that 18 year old pregnant black woman pushes to college, her odds of graduating were lower than mine and I can only imagine that the lack of support looks like her plays a factor. Never under estimate the power of a community that looks like you, because it’s harder to see yourself in those people around you if their skin color doesn’t match yours.

Two pregnant 18-year old girls. One black, one white. One with an assortment of privileges she never even appreciated and the other with judgement from a white educational system and a white community that doesn’t inspire her to rise in any way. Two women bound to their birthright in a society that claims meritocracy but instead is built on racist systems putting one of those women at an extreme disadvantage she does not deserve. And it NEVER EVEN OCCURRED TO ME.

I still will periodically have someone commend me for my past survival and I feel weird about that now, now that I am aware of the privileges I did not earn that allowed for that success. I try my best to channel that shame into action and into my voice to tell the white people around me as often as I can: I rose high from a challenge because I was given stairs that were built on the backs of the black and brown people before me.

5 Comments

  • Chrystal

    Your honesty, insight, and ability to break down complicated topics into digestible (and eye-opening) pieces are so very appreciated.

  • Olivia

    This week’s episode of American Life (episode 550: Three Miles) touches on lots of these themes – exposure to an idea like college means you’re more likely to go, and how this is so linked to race. A worthwhile listen.