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Recognizing My Privilege While Experiencing Oppression

As a Woman of Color; a Black Woman, I found it nearly impossible to reconcile with myself the notion of me holding privilege. I understood where privilege showed up. I watched it unveil itself in schools by teachers, in stores by clerks, in restaurants, in the workplace by my supervisors as well as my direct reports. I was constantly harmed when privilege manifested itself, by those who were wielding it in a seemingly unaware way.

At this point in my career, I considered myself to be a fairly educated person and knowledgeable about diversity and the benefits of an inclusive work environment. I was consistently finding myself feeling alone and isolated­—misunderstood and scrutinized. I engaged in behavior that I now label as internalized oppression. I spent money getting my hair styled in ways that did not affirm me. I made sure to enunciate every single word. I tried hard to distance myself from anything that would further give reason for harm to befall me. I worked longer and harder than anyone else, with precision.

While all of those things were a reality for me, they did not negate a truth, that I too—regardless of all the harm that was happening to me due to my race—had privilege. What privilege could a Black Bi-Woman have? I grew up in poverty. Early in my career, I was still eligible for state benefits. I used WIC and public transportation. I used to cash my checks at a convenience store. I was subject to all types of harassment. The world did not feel like a favorable place to me. It was definitely proving that it did not accept me.

I am a walker. I walk fast, no matter where I am going. I also love to read, write, and share the information that I have garnered over time with others. While I am a visual learner, I am pretty good at tuning out all the background noise that is going on around me. So much so, that some feel that I am ignoring them, when I am simply in a zone. But, what does any of this have to do with privilege?

I am not living with a disability. I don’t have a visible or an invisible disability. I am able-bodied. My cognitive and intellectual abilities are not wired in a way that requires me to use accommodations to get through my day-to-day life. My mental or emotional state does not impair my ability to work or have relationships with others—if I am un-medicated, out of therapy, or without the necessary accommodations to get through my day.

The irony of me not recognizing this privilege is that I studied disabilities in college. I learned and took in. I volunteered and became engaged with the disability community in my area. Yet, I still did not recognize that I was holding privilege. How could this be?

Privilege renders itself invisible to the holders of it. Those around me knew I held privilege. Today, I look back at the harm I caused others simply by not taking the time to learn that privilege could apply to me and that it did. Having privilege did not take away from the fact that I was oppressed. Both my oppressed lived experience and my privileged lived experience coincided. I can’t undo that harm. But, I can work to not make the same mistakes that I did then, now.

I was listening to a song this morning by one of my favorite artists—Brandy. While listening to the song and reading the lyrics as they rolled on my screen, I was saddened as she perpetuated harm on those who are living with borderline personality disorder and schizophrenia. It reminded me, again, that we live in a society where those who don’t have to learn more, know more, or do more to survive in society, don’t. This society was designed with the most privileged of us in mind. It is how all of the “isms” continue to exist. We use language and move about in ways that don’t consider the impact on others.

I had to acknowledge that I have, and sometimes still do, engage in ableist behavior. I have said and done things without even slightly considering the impact on people with disabilities. I have set up meeting spaces to maximum capacity with no consideration for the noise level, the ability to move through the space, or the lighting exposure. I have created presentations that were extremely visually busy. I have used inappropriate and harmful language that I now recognize to be ableist.

Acknowledging my privilege meant that I could do something differently. I didn’t have to go around unintentionally causing harm. I could accept it when I was called in by someone who witnessed harm or was harmed by me.

I can apologize without looking for or expecting forgiveness. I can do better. I can actually leverage my privilege and assist in making the work place accessible for all. My allyship here does not take away from my need for allies.

For those who may be or have struggled with recognizing your privilege, read up on it. Listen to those who have been impacted by your privilege and take actions to minimize the harm that you are causing others. It is an imperfect process. Yet, for those of us who are committed to social justice, we can’t choose the one-size fits all approach. It doesn’t work and is a privileged stance. I am choosing to be active in dismantling oppressions—those I experience and those where I experience privilege.

Join me in being an intersectional change agent.


Chéree Thomas is an  Associate Director at the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence. If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual violence, our trained advocates are available to talk 24 hours a day toll-free at 1-855-VOICES-4 (1-855-864-2374).

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