By Elias Baez ’15
Volume XXXVIII, Issue 2, November 21, 2014
I can’t decide if I’m beseeching or demanding that you listen. It’s hard to even define who you are, since I’m addressing those same people who think that they don’t need to be addressed. You use the language of support for the marginalized, but you perpetrate the same violence you purport to reject. Your privileged position truly blinds you. You may not see or feel them, but I promise those blind spots are there. You learn to see the blindnesses in others when vigilance is the only way that you can protect yourself. And my problem is that I like you, and I know that you’re a good person, but I can no longer reconcile that with your refusal to listen to me. You listen until it applies to you. You listen until it’s dangerous to listen, because your sense of self is threatened. I’m not telling you that whiteness is a crime, that wealth is a crime, that manhood is a crime, or that heterosexuality is a crime. All you need to do—all I’m beseeching/demanding that you do—is examine yourself and acknowledge the ways that these identities have informed your experience of the world. The good in your life is not undeserved simply because you have grown up with certain privileges. No one is saying that. It’s about understanding the experience of others, which is nothing small or flouncy. Ignorance of your own privilege enables you to inadvertently inflict your blindnesses upon others. Ignorance of your own privilege allows you to single-mindedly define the spaces you occupy on your terms, which, being rooted in blindness, are unreal, ungrounded, and oppositional to truth. These are forgivable offenses as long as you do not deny that they are offenses when that fact is pointed out to you. Finally, as much as the critical discourse that Amherst espouses necessarily complicates the notion of “truth” as something identifiable and universal, experiential knowledge is real—rejecting such as invalidly “anecdotal” allows individuals to literally reject reality when it is convenient to them—and a lived experience delimited by an intersection of marginalized identities leaves no room for convenient, self-justifying fabrications about the nature of privilege.
Individual experience is necessarily derived from and reflective of the much larger man-made systems and institutions that structure the chaotic world into something livable. It is essential that the contours of these structures are defined by humans-with-power along ideological lines derived from their beliefs. Man-made systems serve specific interests. I came to Amherst College because the ideological laws that define it—the open curriculum,small classes with great professors, a focus on deliberate diversity—fell in line with my own beliefs and best interests. Upon arrival, I was able to identify with the system-at-large and believe that it had me (well, the collective that includes me) in mind when big choices were made. Since then, however, I’ve grown increasingly alienated from the school and its culture. It happened quietly and largely unseen. Now I understand that an internal war of attrition has been taking place between my desire to love this place for what it has given me and the siege of arguments that just fucking wear you down from students who are blind to their privileged positions within the systems we occupy. By my lights, that is the nature of privilege: the freedom to identify with the system, to believe in it.
None of us exist in a vacuum. We navigate a near-infinity of public spaces—small gatherings with friends, our families, the towns we live in, our voting districts, our nation, etc.—spaces in which we are seen and spaces in which we fluidly adopt (or highlight) different features of our private identity. There are rules to each of these spaces, things you can and cannot reveal. You wouldn’t talk about sodomy at Thanksgiving.
What happens when your identity itself is wrong in these spaces? When your illegal sexuality is a secret you have to keep from your own mother? When the national systems that govern your life systematically declare that your skin is wrong, your family is wrong, your childhood memories of growing up in the ghetto are wrong? What happens when the systems that control your life are actively oppositional to you? Privilege allows one to grow up without ever having to ask these questions. Worse, privilege allows one to ignore these questions when they’re asked.
I grew up in an apartment complex in Yonkers, NY. It had been a bastion for wealthy white people until upwardly mobile minorities began to move in. At seven, I remember the day my mother’s car was keyed, and the day my older brother told me how an old white woman spat “spic” at him from a car window as she drove by. I got older and we moved further upstate, into a rural area with literally no library. Later, when I happily told my mother about my first girlfriend, she told me the story of my sister’s childhood friend, Timothy Ruiz, shot in the chest in our local mall’s parking lot by a veteran police officer. An Old Navy manager, he was walking to his car after work and murdered at 22 for dating a white woman. My mother had to fear for her son’s life over something so small, and raise me to see the prejudice in others. At 15, your life is at risk in parking lots. These stories are not at all unique, only particular. And when I say system, I am referring to spaces like my apartment complex, the area we moved into, and the larger culture that accommodates such wrongs. Small infractions against these systems can cost you your life, and your parents are tasked with guiding you through the minefield of simply being alive. It isn’t paranoia, it isn’t a victim complex. It’s real. As a minority of any kind, you are forced to shore your identity up against the deluge of devaluations and diminutions you face every single day. When you attempt to reject that experience, you are only the latest in a series of wrongs.
The promotion of diversity has brought people like me to Amherst. I’m not here to educate the privileged; I’m here to receive an education. I shouldn’t have to write a word of this. You need to take the time to acknowledge the systems that you’ve grown into. It’s that simple. It has taken me until my senior year to overcome the silence you shove down my throat when you insist on arguing against the reality of privilege. You will never disrupt or disprove that reality with empty arguments against those of us who’ve lived it. The real secret is that you’ve never actually won any of those arguments; you’ve just proven yourself to be someone unwilling to listen, and we have been raised not to bother with that anymore.