A couple of racist responses to the mixed race couple in General Mills Cheerio ad were running amok in my corner of the social network and distracted me from my writing with the many insightful, outraged, and humorous responses. It got me thinking about race and privilege in my life. In case you couldn’t tell, I came from a white middle class protestant background and it took me a long sojourn through academia before I really began to understand my own privilege. Because while Privilege has racist connotations, it’s mixed up with a lot of other factors, but most notably poverty. Without a lot of number crunching, it hard to separate the two. For me though, it’s a little easier. For most of my formative years my family hovered just above the poverty line despite my parents education and background. It turns out being medical specialists in a highly rural environment wasn’t as lucrative as one might think. Eventually the practice folded largely due to external factors beyond my parents control (for example, when the ICU in the hospital shut down, it nearly destroyed my parents business right then and there). So even though my family had very little money, I was still the beneficiary of Privilege.
What is Privilege? Privilege is the advantage you hold in life just because of how you were born. Being born white gave me certain advantages. It’s unfair; I’d change if it if I could, but the worst thing I could do is to deny it ever happened. For me it was the intense focus on reading my family. We may have raided the walmart books 2:1$ section but we had plenty of books. (Library was practically nonexistent). Shockingly, though ignorance, apathy, or finances, most families don’t have many and it’s a shame. One of the things that I’ve only recently begun to realize was an influence on my life was the spam my parents got in their mail box every day. As Doctors, they got some pretty quality stuff too. A lot of medical journals gave them unsolicited subscriptions for a short period of time as teasers hoping that they’d buy more. One periodical whose name I can’t remember always posted clever little medical comics I didn’t understand. If my parents read this post perhaps they can remember the name of the magazine. It still shows up every once in a while in their mailbox. Reading these comics were incomprehensible to me. Every once in a while, I’d have my Dad try to explain one if it looked easy enough.
I can’t tell you if this snippet of my childhood made any difference in my life. It probably didn’t. I never chose to go to medical school. There were many many more opportunities for literacy than just obscure jokes in a medical journal. Absent these comics my life would have undoubtedly turned out the same. But it’s one of many infinitesimal moments of preparing the mind for science and academia that was my childhood. My parents knowingly or not, intentionally or not (usually intentionally), paved the way for me to go to college and then to grad school. It’s the opportunities and expectations that students of many ethnic minorities don’t often have but should.
I’m not an expert in these problems. I don’t have good solution. There are people far better to speak on privilege than I. People who might put it more succinctly or clearer. I may even have muddled it but I hope not. But once your aware of privilege. Of all the little ways that your socioeconomic and cultural upbringing made you who you are you can’t but be compelled to help. When I see some ignorant little kid unable to tell the difference between RNA and DNA I am obligated to help, not only because I’m a good person but because I remember my parents helping me learn to pronounce deoxyribonucleic acid because if for no other reason, it’s fun to say. Someone helped me in my life. Many someone ones. I would be a terrible egocentric, ignorant, foolish if I didn’t recognize that I didn’t do it alone and that no one does. Maybe that’ll be the final nail in the coffin of racism, this little bit of enlightenment that says, no one is an isolated success. In the spirit of those who helped me when I needed it, I will help others for no other reason than personal generosity.