“Does anyone else have a story to share?”
It was a simple, innocent invitation, but the silence that followed left me feeling like a stone statue. I said nothing and just waited patiently for the silence to end. The facilitator stood up and thanked everyone. A group of Amherst College students who had spent more than an hour listening to their friends’ stories about identity in the McCaffrey Room of Keefe Campus Center resumed their normal routine at Amherst. No more stories would be shared that night.
On March 3rd, during that incredibly enriching student-run storytelling event organized and facilitated by the student staff of The Queer Resource Center, I had wanted to step up and contribute something during the gathering. I listened to students before me articulate introspective, profound reflections on their identities with others. Sometimes they shared a humorous experience, and other times they shared something that was transformative and enlightening. Why couldn’t I find the courage to do the same?
In this engaging storytelling space, I did not feel at all unwelcome, but my connection with Amherst’s affinity groups and spaces as well as my empathy for my fellow students, was not enough to motivate me to speak up. Honestly, I was intimidated to present that night because I sensed that many students around me did not share my class privilege. To me, privilege describes systems of unearned advantage in our society. I couldn’t help but think about the unique experiences I’ve had with my own identity, only to realize how many of these stories are somehow connected to the concept of privilege. That night, I did not know how to express my story, but now I think I can.
In Craig Campbell’s recent AC Voice article tackling activism and campus culture, he noted how “‘privilege’ itself is a loaded and often overused term.” Furthermore, after having my web browser search for “privilege” on Gina Faldetta’s recent article, I discovered that there were fifty-two instances of the word in that article’s comments. In the comments, you’ll also find the phrase “check your privilege” five times! Before telling people to check their privilege, we as a community need to have constructive conversations on what the term privilege even means, despite its complexities and the discomfort that discussing it can cause. Keeping these articles and their comments in mind, I do not wish to position myself as an expert on the concept of privilege and how it operates. Nonetheless, after thinking about my personal experience at the storytelling event, I gained more confidence in channeling my own thoughts into writing and providing one perspective on identity and privilege. So here it goes.
My dad is a doctor. I grew up in a suburban neighborhood and my parents have been happily married for more than 20 years. I am healthy, currently able-bodied, and cisgender. I have received a great education so far at Amherst. I can afford to buy a bike and ride it around campus. I happened to be born a citizen of the United States of America. The list goes on. I didn’t earn any of these privileges. I just got lucky. I will never truly understand what it is like to grow up low-income, first-generation, and/or without my parents around. Still, my experiences with my extended family and my interpersonal interactions at Amherst have helped me to grow as a human being and become more aware of those with different life experiences. Some of my cousins have parents who are divorced, and for multiple reasons, could not afford to attend a college like Amherst. In a very limited way, even though I still have much to learn, this experience has cultivated my appreciation for the realities of class and wealth disparity, especially those that can exist within our own families. Fortunately, every day at Amherst, my interactions with other students also make me more aware of my socio-economic privilege.
I am not expressing all of this to discount the ways in which my sexual identity and my race are marginalized identities. I am aware that being both gay and black excludes me from certain privileges in American society. However, to some extent, despite my marginalized identities, the privileged reality of being born male and from an upper-middle class background has impacted the way others have perceived me. Of course, whenever I leave the Amherst campus, my identity as a black gay man often becomes much more salient. However, in the context of the Amherst community, my socio-economic status and my gender have often allowed me to feel privileged on campus.
Although we may need to have more specific conversations to address how and why socio-economic status matters at Amherst College, I would urge us all to initially have conversations about privilege more generally. These conversations should not divide our community into those who are privileged and those who are not. Alternatively, we all should strive to appreciate how we are privileged in certain ways and disadvantaged in others. This way, all students can be involved in the conversation and share their stories.
To achieve this goal, we should incorporate intersectionality into conversations about privilege so we can stop perceiving social privileges as a binary separation of haves and have-nots. Very few people with privilege are completely privileged, and vice versa. I am a gay black man, but that label is honestly not enough to explain my experience without talking about my other identities.
In certain contexts, I would even argue that I benefit from being a person of color with a light skin tone, allowing me to sometimes “pass” and receive unjust but better treatment than those with darker skin. Back home in the Baltimore, MD area, I was very aware of my black identity growing up, and I vividly remember being called the n-word by a neighbor my age some years ago when walking my dog. However, perhaps due to the ethnic diversity of the Amherst College student body, before I corrected them, some acquaintances viewed me as ‘racially ambiguous,’ mistaking me as Latino or biracial. Furthermore, at Amherst, I definitely do not think about my racial identity as much as I do in other places. To me, the majority of racial discrimination on campus seems episodic, indirect, and/or subtle. Communal context has clearly affected my experience with my identity.
I’ve learned to appreciate the diversity of experiences among students of color in the Amherst College community. Amherst’s students of color are not a monolithic group: we share some life experiences but none of us can deny that each of us has other individual qualities and histories that differentiate us. Intersectionality liberates us from feeling completely marginalized or feeling completely privileged. Through intersectionality, we become more mindful of the ways in which we are privileged, while still acknowledging the ways we are disadvantaged and discriminated in society. By thinking about our identities comprehensively, I think we can begin to have better and more constructive dialogue about social change on this campus and beyond.