Before coming to the University of Michigan and taking part in some self-awareness exercises, I had not considered myself to have privilege. I mean, I was a female coming from a poor/middle class family and town with no exceptional talents or opportunities growing up. I went to school, played some sports, worked at a fast food place, and had some friends. Middle average at best.
In media today, the word “privilege” is thrown around a lot. It was one of those buzz words I had heard but didn’t really know what it meant, like “sustainable” or “diversification.” I knew “privilege” had negative connotations and did not think it really applied to me because it was not really a part of my world. In my hometown, everyone basically came from the same money and opportunities, so the idea of privilege had never occurred to me.
But now I know that I am privileged: privileged to be able to attend a great university, that my parents love and support my desire to go to college, that I have no major disabilities that would deter me from attending college, that my parents are both working and able and willing to help with my tuition payments, and for so much more. Everyone has their own privileges, whether they acknowledge them or not.
But the point is, I had believed for the most part of my life that I was not privileged. I had carried myself without acknowledging that I had opportunities that others did not. I had spoken my mind and given my opinion without thinking that others may have a different experience and point of view. And the day that I realized this, I vowed to always “check” my privilege before saying anything or writing anything I was not an expert on.
Unfortunately for me, this promise to myself had turned into a little voice in the back of my head every time I went to speak in class on a tough topic or write something of substance.
What do you know about that? You’ve never done any research on it. You don’t even read the newspaper. Who cares about your opinion?
I wanted to write about something important and have a real, valid opinion, but I was so afraid that what I say would be considered privileged or ignorant that I would stop.
I began to deal with this fear in Gateway last year; for the final project, I chose to do a presentation about sexual assault and sexual violence. Now, even though I have the privilege of never having first-hand experience, I had second-hand experience and was always very interested in the effects on survivors. I wanted to learn and write and teach about something that really mattered to me. But I had that little voice in the back of my head again.
What gives you the right to speak about sexual violence? Why do you care so much about it? It’s way too personal of a subject to be talking about. It’s only going to make actual survivors uncomfortable and resentful toward you.
I snubbed that nagging little voice by doing a TON of research. I learned about the formal effects (i.e. PTSD, increased anxiety, etc.) as well as the informal effects that they don’t list on websites that actual survivors reported on anonymous forums. I learned about the many branches and trap doors of sexual violence and how just recently it is becoming normalized to talk about. I learned that, even with my privileged opinion, I can still do good by continuing the conversation and teaching others what it is all about and why it should be able to be talked about.
Although I cannot “solve” the fear of others viewing my point of view as privileged or ignorant, I can do research and learn as much that I can and then acknowledge my privilege. Acknowledge that what I am saying may not be immersed in experience and first-hand knowledge, but it is still an informed opinion worth speaking.