Many people still adhere to the old dictum of Southern and Midwestern politeness — don’t talk about politics, money or religion; at least, not with anyone you like. It’s easy to add race, gender and sexuality to that list, making privilege a taboo topic. It’s a conversation that rarely happens in the United States, and Xavier is no exception.
I (Taylor) have nothing to support this claim, but suspect that Xavier is not as homogenous as we might think. If that is the case, it would be because Americans are notoriously bad at recognizing diversity, even when it is in plain sight.
Then we have to ask a couple of crucial questions that will throw into light the conversations that we often refuse to have, for better or worse: what’s at stake in privilege? And what’s at stake in acknowledging it?
The first question is easier to answer. Power, advantage and social mobility are what define privilege. Privilege is what arbitrarily lifts some above others by the circumstances into which they are born. Privilege also attempts to hide itself. When obscure and unnoticed, it can lurk about much more easily, reducing individuals from equality without most of society noticing, depriving people of their humanity without subjugating them through physical violence.
Acknowledging privilege, in contrast, is an act of recognizing difference. Recognition highlights why privilege may be arbitrary, but that privilege shapes us nonetheless. Privilege is impressed on our consciousness, and when detected it demands understanding and reflection instead of complacency. White privilege is an easy type of privilege to spot and contrast with racial diversity, and diverse sexualities are beginning to figure into popular consciousness, emphasizing historic and present discrimination against the LGBTQ community. That still leaves economic and class diversity largely unacknowledged, though.
Economic privilege can be an especially difficult one to acknowledge and still more difficult to discuss. It is rare that even close friends discuss the economic background of their parents. For me (Taylor), it is a topic that I have only broached with a couple of friends. That is not to say that I would advocate for a campus-wide discussion on personal finances, but I do think we are limited: limited in recognizing our differences and the corresponding diversity on campus.
Perhaps that’s largely a result of the stigma associated with being from an economically ‘diverse’ background. We’re taught from a young age that coming from a lower social status is something to be ashamed of and therefore hidden. I (Sabrina) find that this stigma becomes particularly more evident at a private, Catholic institution.
That’s not to say that it is unique to the university level. At a private, Catholic high school, I (Taylor) could sense the economic discrepancies. You could tell by the way people spoke, an unfortunate product of the rural- urban-suburban divide. You could tell by which kids worked during lunch to help pay for their own tuition. You could tell by what type of lunch your friends could afford. All of that gets exacerbated when you get to college because now we’re considered adults. That is to say, the jobs become real, the debt becomes real and so does economic privilege. When someone says ‘typical Xavier student,’ what’s the first thing to come to mind? Generally, our stereotype is that we’re a college of white, Catholic, financially-fortunate individuals.
But how many of our peers work out of necessity to pay their rent and electricity, not just for Dana’s money? How many have worked minimum wage jobs, worked in high school or had parents working in jobs that weren’t ‘white-collar?’ How many worked over summers not to save for the future, but out of necessity for the present? And how many did not take a work-study job for the experience, but for the income? Generally speaking, Xavier students are rather privileged individuals. There is nothing one can do to change this but there is something that is troubling in neither acknowledging nor discussing it, even if only among close friends.
It’s bad enough that we don’t realize how Norwood residents or Avondale residents perceive us here on campus. That is part of the “Xavier bubble,” something that we cannot control in four short years. When we cannot look ourselves in the collective mirror, so to speak, it is another and more pressing issue.
I (Taylor) have learned that one cannot do away with his or her privilege. You can’t give it up. In Central America, I couldn’t give up my white skin or my American identity. It is something I carry with me, and I believe that while harder to see, the same applies to privilege in the United States. You cannot undo what has already been done, and that, in and of itself, is a difficult fact to acknowledge and an even harder one to accept. We can shed the present as much as we can the past. Privilege always comes with the knowledge that our ancestors — be they recent or distant — willingly and knowingly oppressed their fellow human beings. Acknowledging that privilege also forces us to accept what those similar to us in some way are capable of doing, something that was made horrifyingly clear to me (Sabrina) while on an Alternative Breaks trip to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. White Americans have a dark history, and a refusal to accept that fact only invites the past to repeat itself, albeit in a milder form from its menacing historical predecessor.
Acknowledging privilege can be constructive when one chooses not to use it in an oppressive or overbearing way. To do that requires that you name it and own it. If you don’t, you let it rule you and those around you. When it dehumanizes one, it dehumanizes all around you. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”