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Romero '14: Let's talk about privilege


Last semester, The Herald published an article that explored the discussion of socioeconomic class among Brown students ("Let's (not) talk about class," April 25). The article primarily focused on how Brown students think and talk about class and privilege within the University. Socioeconomic class is often a taboo subject at Brown, a sentiment summed up by one student saying that "talking about class ... is considered very socially unacceptable." Although the article attempts to find a consensus on how Brown students think about class, it does not come to a neat conclusion, which leads me to believe that many Brown students are not particularly adept at thinking and talking about socioeconomic class or privilege.

Although I applaud the intent to start a productive and honest conversation among Brown students, understanding the ways in which socioeconomic class affects us begins with personal recognition of one's own privilege. Recognizing one's own privilege is a good first step to start thinking about our nation's structural inequalities - if one can't understand one's own privileges, how can one combat structural problems such as poverty, racism and sexism? Even though these problems manifest themselves through institutions and laws, they are deeply personal and require acute awareness to be fixed. Although I may cringe at the conservative ideal of "taking personal responsibility" for righting the wrongs of structural inequality, I believe that a deep conversation must take place with one's self in order to deal with the problems of privilege.

Recognizing one's own privilege does not have to be an act of self-shaming. Identifying and accepting the realities of your own life is the beginning of understanding the complex issues surrounding socioeconomic class and its intersections with gender, race, sexuality and other identities. The Herald article on the discussion of socioeconomic class presents many Brown students who are unaware of their own privilege, regardless of which end of the spectrum they occupy.

Having little self-awareness of one's own privileges leads to unproductive and unhealthy discussion among people in different socioeconomic classes. If someone who is extremely well off considers themselves to be "middle class," as a majority of Brown students do according to the article, then discussion between them and someone from a more disadvantaged socioeconomic class becomes difficult. It helps me to remind myself of my privilege every once in a while: "I have benefited from society's inequalities. I am an able-bodied male who has never had any serious concerns about health or money. Even though my college's tuition alone is more than my family makes in a year, I receive enough scholarships to attend college without the worry of debt." These are the articles of privilege that I carry around with me wherever I go, and I must be aware of these facts in order to enter a productive conversation of society's inequalities.

Recently, a high school friend of mine graduated from a prestigious college in the northeast on full scholarship like me. She is a first-generation American and college student like me. She is a person of color like me. She told me about her experience at her college, about how she received an amazing undergraduate education coupled with ignorance and misunderstanding of her identity by her peers. They didn't understand her or the structures that colored her life. They would accidentally flaunt their status through little verbal slip-ups: "I can't believe you've never been to that country!" The insensitivity exhibited by her peers reflects a lack of self-awareness: If they had recognized their own privilege, they would have been more careful with seemingly innocuous statements that served to shame her and people like her. A lack of awareness of one's privilege leads to frustration and isolation of those who feel that they are on the tougher side of the socioeconomic spectrum and who feel that their reality is being ignored and mocked.

Awareness of one's own socioeconomic status is just a minimum. Self-awareness leads to communication and mutual understanding, which would hopefully lead to brainstorming methods of how to right society's inequalities. I will concede that being aware of your own privilege can be difficult. I used to think that privilege meant benefiting from someone else's hard work, and I preferred to think that I became successful on my own. But I realized that I am privileged, and admitting it is not shameful, but realistic and productive toward making changes.

I also realize that not everyone is ready or willing to declare their own privilege. I always read articles about recognizing and fixing structural inequalities and prepare to take a deep breath and read the troubling and defensive comments from those who are unaware of their own privilege. A person who points out the ills of structural racism, sexism or homophobia becomes an ungrateful whiner, someone looking for a handout who attempts to make excuses for personal failures. While many Brown students do not fall under such a hateful category of naysayers, Brunonians could still use a little dose of self-awareness every once in a while. Self-awareness about one's privilege exemplifies the paradox of understanding structural inequality: to get the big picture you have to look inside of yourself first. It helps to say to yourself every so often: "I am privileged, and although I am not the cause of structural inequality, my lack of awareness of my own privilege will only exacerbate it."



David Romero '14 likes to have cool, nonthreatening conversations about difficult topics.



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