After a Summer at Harvard, I Know What Privilege Is

Talking about privilege in a social justice context always makes me itchy. I don’t like to wipe other people’s experiences off of the conversational map just because of their life experiences, but having had a dozen too many conversations where all I could do is stare someone in the face and think: You’ve honestly never been scared to walk home at night? How can I possibly explain to you what that feels like? I know privilege has a place in the bookshelves of my mind, in the section marked “short-hand,” next to the birdcage and Schrodinger’s Rapist, the gaslight and the missing stair.

Privilege is hard to define. It’s not a conscious state of choosing to oppress someone or even insidiously internalized biases. It’s a life experience, or often, lack of experience.

After a summer a Harvard, I have a personal definition: privilege is not having to explain. At Carnegie Mellon, I had to explain on a regular basis why I chose to major in the Humanities rather than Engineering or Computer Science. Being a Humanities major was a privilege but not a privileged position within the university. When I travel to the Middle East, I have to explain where my husband is; not having to explain would be a privilege. My friends who are bi or gay or trans or not U.S. citizens or disabled have to explain how they are different on a troublingly regular basis.

Harvard students, though every one I met and worked with were kind and worth my time and treated me like I was worth theirs, are privileged. Both undergrads and law students have spent time on a campus which throngs with tourists who gawk at them and their buildings and statues. After my second week, I picked up their habit of not name-dropping where I work because the looks on people’s faces when I said I had an internship at Harvard Law School were just too discomforting to balance out the ego-boost I got from saying it. Saying I worked at Harvard Law School for a summer gig, no one asks me why, or what I’m going to do with that experience. No one asks me to explain.

In college I lived with a woman who was nearly a foot shorter than me. I realized one day doing dishes, that I had height privilege: I never thought that I was making her life harder by putting all of the dishes at my eye-level. Realizing this, I started justifying to myself: She’s used to it, she’s always been short. She doesn’t mind, or she would have said something. I’ll bet she can just use a stool. Now, when I’m writing or thinking and have an inkling I’m missing something because of my privilege, I try and listen into my mind and see if I hear these excuses, or others. I try to think if I’m making someone else’s life harder because it’s inconvenient for me to do otherwise.

I don’t think Harvard undergrads or law students are harming anyone with their privilege: they’re not hiding the best bowls out of reach of their friends or making someone justify their pronouns for the 15th time this week. But just like when the white teenaged boys at my predominantly Asian and Indian high school whinged about the unfairness of affirmative action, when I listen to my Harvard friends complain about the knowing looks they get when they identify their university my heart is not swayed with pity. Because, like many of the white teenaged boys at my predominantly Asian and Indian high school, my Harvard friends never have to explain why they matter to the world.

Inspirational Quote:

“The hours I spend with you I look upon as sort of a perfumed garden, a dim twilight, and a fountain singing to it.  You and you alone make me feel that I am alive.  Other men it is said have seen angels, but I have seen thee and thou art enough.”–George Moore

2 Comments

  1. I never thought from this perspective, perhaps I felt it but never quite really grasped it. Another perspective is how the community also discards what people without privilege can bring. Having privileges can be harmful to The one who have it and the ones who lack it (am going through this at the place am interning but from the opposite perspective, people are trying to minimize how much I can bring due to fears from the privilege I got through CMU), if used purely to generalize. The one who have it and the ones who lack it. However, I think this view will change eventually.

  2. I’m so sorry that’s happening to you–being judged for something you can’t help is the worst. I think being aware that they’re doing it and that we do it too does help avoid it and I too think it will change eventually.

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