Quite often, I do feel like the most privileged man on earth. These days, I get to work at an admirable non-profit that has gone from grassroots origins to being the largest doing something about North Korea. I have amazing parents, friends, and family that support me and my girlfriend really spoils me. I live on a shoestring budget, but I’ve never gone without food or shelter.
So yes, in that sense, I’m quite privileged. All these things are gifts.
But the word privilege has grown a new sort of connotation as of late. Privilege, especially when you attach the suffixes over- or under- to it, begins to refer to how well you have it in life. Underprivileged means growing up in a part of town riddled with gang activity, overprivilege means having it easy, too easy almost. Then there are facets like white privilege or male privilege, which is taken to refer to the advantages in life white people or men get, often seemingly without fully realizing it- things like being portrayed widely in the media as if the world really were 95% white, or being able to show some assertiveness without also having to dodge the label of the b-word.
When I started out at UCSB, discussion about privilege were everywhere. So much that I tuned it all out. It was partially because I heard about it predominantly through hyperopinionated professors and zealously progressive student groups that I figured it didn’t have too much relevance to how the world actually worked. It was also because many of these programs focused so much on how being anything other than white puts you at a disadvantage. It seemed like so much of the dialogue was only in regards to race. Tan as I am, I didn’t feel like people trying to push the fact that I was underprivileged down my throat quite matched my own experience in life. I’d gone through struggles, to be sure, but those were often emotional and spiritual battles- depression, loneliness, dealing with loss. Things that don’t really know racial boundaries.
I always figured in the grand scheme of things related to privilege, I’d be somewhere right in the middle- not at the bottom, not at the top.
That’s why following a team exercise, a privilege walk, I was surprised to find myself leading the pack.
Out at Del Cerro canyon, we lined up facing an overlook of a large portion of L.A. Which part, I’m not sure, but it was a great panoramic sight. Starting in an even, shoulder-to-shoulder line, we were asked questions like “Did you have more than fifty books in your house growing up?” Questions like “Did your parents expect you to attend an Ivy League school?” or “Do you identify yourself as an American?” called for steps forward. Questions like “Have you ever had to miss a meal due to lack of food?” or “Have you had a parent lose a job?” called for steps backwards. By the end, I found myself in front, and almost too far away from the playing field.
It was a surprise to be sure, but after thinking and talking for a little bit, I assembled a few thoughts that came to mind.
First of all, I was among a number of first generation born-Americans. The LiNK team is a very diverse bunch. As you might imagine, Koreans are well represented, but the diversity goes beyond. Still, the first question right off the bat was “how many of you identify yourselves as American?” All but one of us fit the mold. All had American upbringings. That endowed all but one of us some privilege. Before long, though, I kept taking steps forward, eventually looking back over my shoulder at my teammates. It was quite different from what I came to expect.
Maybe it’s because the questions were different than what I was used to. They looked at a lot of other things beyond skin color. In a lot of ways, this was encouraging. I mean, not to ignore the fact that all minorities face both shared and unique challenges, but in my own honest experience, I’ve never felt less privileged than my white friends on ethnic grounds. There are things i’d change, no doubt, but I’m not fond of attempts at diversity-awareness-trainings that perpetuate a victimhood of the disadvantaged.
Much of the team, though, could admit that their parents had faced a lot of difficulty in the assimilation process. A good portion of the questions asked related to parents- if we had working professionals as parents, if one of our parents had ever been laid off… it became clear that those of us who did not have to face as many challenges got that experience as a result of the sacrifice of the prior generation.
The very last question asked if our friends and family were supportive of our nomadic internship. Fortunately, a good portion of the team stepped forward. It didn’t necessarily tell the entire story, though. I’d say my family is very supportive, but not necessarily understanding. I appreciate the great amount of faith they have in me, by persisting in their support regardless, but I can understand why it’s a challenge to understand why I seek out unpaid internships rather than jobs. Some acknowledge that it has some nobility, but point out its lack of practicality and dismiss it as a phase of idealism.
To a migrant parent who sacrificed all sorts of time and energy to open up every door imaginable for their kids, it can be a bit challenging to not see your kids wind up on the overachieving side of things. In my own scenario, it’s easier sharing a faith with my parents. I can talk about how I want to take Jesus seriously and sacrifice to serve the lowest of society rather than climb the social ladder. I respect their own sacrifice a ton, and recognize that in that way, they’ve enacted that sort of faith and Love in their own lives. But for me, starting out at a different point, my mission to Love looks a lot different. We still have the same values, it just looks different.
Such an understanding has really furthered my empathy and understanding of my parents, and it’s also enabled me to communicate my vantage point a little easier. Indeed, such a relationship with my parents in itself is a humongous privilege- but I prefer the term blessing.