The word privilege is being spoken and written many times over. Within the past couple of years I’m seeing and hearing privilege used in an undeniably distinct context. (Or it could be that I was unknowingly and partially deaf and blind to this context.) The word is written on cardboard signs, on people’s faces — and no matter what surface it’s on, the impact it has seems unbearable to the canvas that holds it.
I was organizing my classroom yesterday, putting away new supplies, tossing out items that I’d kept for too long. I have enough paperclips to last me two more lifetimes. Elmer’s glue bottles and glue sticks fill up an entire shelf. Same with staples and pattern blocks. And why would I get mad at a kid for not having his pencil — I have a shitload of pencils. I remember feeling a vague sense of shame of not having certain school supplies when I was in grade school. I remember mashing up rice to use as glue.
Kevin was a black teacher-turned administrator at my former school. When his second daughter was born (maybe 15 years ago), he said, “I thank God I have daughters. It’s hard for a black boy to grow up in this country.”
My husband is white. It never occurred to me how white he is until we were walking the streets of southern Vietnam. People looked at us (much more at him than at me) with foreign expressions. I felt safe with him by my side. Although I had no reason to not feel safe. I was back in my homeland — unknown to everyone around me — yet I was thankful to have a personal bodyguard because Hey, I’m with the big white dude.
Graham Smith, age 11. Me, age 11. He said to me, “Go back to your country.” I actually didn’t understand what he said, my Vietnamese girlfriend provided the translation. His expression matched what she said. I’m terrible with remembering even just first names. But I remember Graham Smith.
Michael missed the bus and had no other ride home. I went to the office to see if I may have permission to take Michael home. My vice-principal, Mr. M, reminded me, “Fawn, he just threatened you last week! And no, you may not transport a student.” (Right, when I sent Michael out of my classroom, he said he wished he had a gun.) I said something like, “I don’t think he has a gun on him though. C’mon, I’ll sign whatever papers. The kid needs a ride home.” Realizing that I was ignorant of the teacher handbook, Mr. M got up from behind his desk and approached me, close enough so he could whisper, “A young Asian teacher should not take a black kid home.” I never thought that statement appeared in the teacher handbook, but what struck me was Mr. M, himself a black man, was saying this.
One year the housing committee at my college decided to move our entire floor of student residents to a different building on the other side of campus because it needed our floor for the football players to move in. Upset, I went to the school’s newspaper in hoping they’d give us a louder voice of protest. Near the end of our conversation, the interviewer said to me, “You are very beautiful. For a Vietnamese.”
Poor. Refugee. Gook. Boat people. Foreigner. Young. Asian. Vietnamese.
It’s been a quiet storm for me.
It’s been a violent storm for others.
It was a fatal storm for Michael Brown.
I close my eyes and take your hand. We ride this storm together, and this shall be my privilege.