Privilege and tripping over our own language

A New Zealand illustrator provides an alternative method for those of us who've struggled to explain today's use of the word "privilege."

The problem with trying to explain what people really mean when they talk about privilege in 2015/2016 is that most of us explainers are too close to it. Many on both ends of America's race debate spectrum use the big, bolded bulletpoints in their arguments, ignoring the subheadings that may seem more race-neutral.

I get it. Sort of.

Out of necessity, the modern (post-modern?) definition of privilege has been simplified. The downside is that many lack the ability to apply the nuance of individual experiences. People can't see past the way they've lived (also called "employing empathy"), so some become defensive upon hearing the argument that white = privileged, and black = not privileged. "What do you mean, 'privileged?' I'm not like those rich, fat cat white guys who helped destroy the economy! I work for a living. My life isn't easy!"*

It's hard to explain that privilege has many faces and levels. Many aren't ready to hear that a postgraduate-educated black person both does and does not hold privilege. They have the advantages of education, but when they walk into a crowded room there will almost always be more than one person who views them with suspicion and who won't imagine the possibility of their black counterpart having had as much or more education than themselves until it has been proven to them. 

The thing is that the word privilege isn't about race. It's about access and opportunity. In America it's a historical fact that people of color have had considerably less access and opportunity than whites. This will remain a fact until the color of one's skin is no longer a determining factor for how they're treated. 

Our words our tripping us up on this issue. Sometimes the visual needs to be called in to take over, which is what Auckland, NZ-based illustrator and comic artist Toby Morris did in May 2015 in his comic for The Wireless. I've posted the comic strip below, and I won't detract from it by saying anything else other than "Thank you, Toby."

images via

*I always find it odd when people who make arguments like this simultaneously idolize those supposed rich, fat cats, equating their purported wealth with the idealized "having it made," failing to realize that a big house and a fancy car often means one has to work even harder to maintain such things.

Last night I became extremely angry...

...but i'm not in the mood to talk about how america is failing ferguson--and itself--right now

Last night I had a fit of anger that may or may not have had something to do with my rising discomfort as I watch American race relations crumble and I begin to question the way my peers of all races look at and use me. I wrote an angry, angry, letter to America. My poor MacBook Air was probably shaking with fear as I approached it this morning, worried that its keys were about to absorb another loud assault from my fingers.

I haven't yet decided if I'm going to post the letter, but in the meantime I've found someone else's blog post that begins to describe my level of discomfort. Bear with me while I have these moments this week. I was raised by people who could be the grandparents of most of my friends. In general I've had a much different perspective on moving through my own country while considered a minority--a word that always triggers an accusation of "less than" in my mind.

Author Morgan Parker. Image via

Author Morgan Parker. Image via

I'm going to sit on the post at least until I ruminate on the artistic findings at this year's WestEdge Design Fair, but for now check out this op-ed from Morgan Parker for VIDA. Here's a snippet:

“I get along with white people really well. Growing up, they brought peppermint bark down the cul-de-sac to my parents’ house every Christmas. They smiled at me, lone brown spot in the classroom, as we read Dr. King’s speech every February. In my graduate writing program, white classmates complimented my afro with liberal fingers, applauded my poems for their sass and bravado, asked me to explain references in Harryette Mullen’s work while we were out for drinks. They’re my white friends, and I’m their black friend. White people love me. It’s kind of my thing.

I have never given a performance to an all-black audience.

For weeks she asks from the chair across from mine, can you describe that loneliness? My therapist is a young, thin white woman who isn’t following the protests in Ferguson. What does that loneliness feel like? I kind of sink into the chair as a performance and flip my wrist. It feels regular and a little glamorously sad. She says can you think of the first time you felt that. I say generations ago. She says we have to stop. I notice my mask slipping. I put it back on before walking out to 5th avenue, weeping quietly in front of The Gap.

Having grown up in the ‘90’s heyday of “I don’t see color” and hearing the budding subconscious white supremacy in statements like “You don’t act black,” the playground was where I first learned about acceptance, and its price. Where I learned to make myself small, nod graciously in thanks for approval. The playground is where I learned who makes the rules. Where I learned that my identity is not up to me.”

— Morgan Parker, "Reports From the Field: White People Love Me: Dispatches From The Token", on

Personally, I haven't and don't buy into the last sentence quoted up there, but I've known plenty of people who have. One of the advantages to having been raised with a bit of haughtiness is that I have always loved trying on bits and pieces of new identities, then keeping what seems to bring out the best in me and discarding what doesn't. A slideshow of the many metamorphoses of my hair from age 14 to 35 might provide a great visual example. You won't see such a slideshow as 14 - 19 were a little rough--though it was from those years that I gained a love for showing up at a formal event once in a while with crimson-colored extensions in my hair. I've always been aware that there are people out there who see my skin color and decide to assume they know me, but those people never mattered to me. Maybe that's why I have such a small--but very tight--circle of actual friends. I've curated my friendships over many years.

Anyhow, this is an essay you'll want to finish reading. Check out the remainder here.