By Sarah Jaravaza
What is privilege? You might have heard about white privilege. Why are people talking about white privilege? If you follow anything to do with contemporary American politics, you will have heard that African American people in America are taking a stand, after what they feel has been years of systemic violation of their rights. It has come to a head lately with headlines of police brutality and shocking deaths of individuals in police custody. Being an African American in America is not easy in 2019.
Why am I talking about privilege? A few months ago, a few of my friends came together for a farewell for a friend who was leaving for Belgium for a year to pursue a master’s degree. During the evening, we began to discuss the former First Lady of the United States of America, Michelle Obama. Some of us felt she had privilege because she attended an Ivy League college and she had a job in a high-powered law firm. One of the simplest reasons some of us thought she had privilege was because Michelle Obama was born in the United States of America. One friend disagreed with us because he detailed that from the book, Michelle Obama grew up in the projects and had to rely on scholarships to better schools to advance her career. I reflected on that dissimilarity of opinions later.
It was remarkable to me that individuals from similar backgrounds could differ on the idea of privilege. Then in a moment of serendipity, a few weeks later when I was at work, I came across some colleagues discussing a new Netflix Documentary, ‘Hello Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea’. Chelsea Handler is a white, American comedian who in her documentary openly admits that she has benefitted from white privilege. Her documentary, although not perfect, interviews people from different races, educational backgrounds and income groups in America. I was fascinated to hear the story of a white rapper from the American South. He openly admitted that he had had several spells in jail, but stated that from his experience, African Americans were incarcerated for longer periods than he was, for the same crimes.
The documentary, the discussion and the news headlines kept me thinking about privilege. It was becoming apparent to me that most issues of privilege have to do with race, ability, gender and sexual orientation. This is not an exhaustive list. I then began to look at my privilege. I am an African, heterosexual woman living in Zimbabwe, Africa. As I am from a third world country, some people might think that I am not privileged but the truth is, I am privileged. As much as I debated with my friend about how Michelle Obama is more privileged than I am, I am more privileged than a lot of people. I am university educated with no college debt, I work at a girl’s school, where in fact, it is an advantage to be a woman.
A few weeks ago, I also came across a BBC Documentary about African Americans moving back to Ghana, Africa. Many African Americans in the United States do not have the privilege of knowing their heritage because of the slave trade. However, through DNA technology, some African American descendants of slaves have discovered their heritage is Ghanaian. 2019 marks the 400th year since slaves were forced to leave Africa to work on plantations in America. In this year, Ghana is accepting African Americans back into Ghana, thereby allowing them to discover their heritage, start businesses and find a new space away from the discrimination they are facing in the States. I was inspired by the fact that there was some light to be shed on a centuries’ old atrocity.
According to most dictionaries, when you have privilege, you do not even have to think about it. But for me, privilege is something that I think about all the time. Subconsciously I will think about what I am wearing when I go to specific parts of town, just because I know men might catcall or harass me. I empathise with my friends, who are homosexual in a country where being homosexual is an illegal act. These are all the negatives and yet there are so many positives. If you can say that you are educated to university/college level, grew up in a nuclear family, have a place to live, are employed and do not have a criminal record, you are privileged. I believe that checking your privilege should not be something used to isolate anyone group. I think it can be a useful tool to start some conversations and for people to relate to each other better in this ever-changing world of ours.