I’m going to take a tiny detour from my Things I Wish I Knew series to address something that came up this week for me and that most of us are guilty of forgetting in one form or another: privilege.
Now this is where I expose my inner geek. One of my absolute favorite things to do in college was to have people over and play the game that has been ruining friendships since the 90s: Mario Kart. Remember when you were all set to win the race, and you’d drive through an item box and it would roulette through all the different items before it landed on the one you got – usually something useless like a banana peel, because unless one of your fellow racers beat you out in the last second, chances are you’d be crossing the finish line first.
The creators of Mario Kart were quite genius. There was some kind of algorithm that calculated your position in the race (second, third, fourth, etc.) and matched it to your likelihood to get a specific item. The worse your position, the better your item. The lightning bolt to incapacitate all your competitors was a fan favorite, as were the red shells that targeted the driver closest to you to disable them long enough for you to sail past.
But the absolute best one was the blue shell – a missile designed to completely obliterate the person in first place. Now, you could only get the blue shell if it was pretty clear you were no where close to winning, and you likely wouldn’t much change the soon-to-be winner’s trajectory to victory, but it was nice to even the playing field a little bit.
But Charlene, what on earth does this have to do with privilege?
Much like in Mario Kart, sometimes each of us is in “first place” or as close as we can get to it. Sometimes that place is earned, but sometimes it’s just sheer dumb luck.
Think about it: an unfair amount of your life is determined by events that happen before you’re born: were you conceived in a country that provided for your basic human needs? Did you grow up having parents to support you? Did you have access to education? Were you able to see a doctor when you needed? Were you raised around people who accepted you for who you were? Were you free from judgment and marginalization over your weight, gender, skin color, socioeconomic class, level of ability, etc.?
I received a job offer in January at a law firm as part of their diversity initiative. I felt incredibly blessed, particularly because paid jobs 1L summer are somewhat akin to the Holy Grail. That’s when I saw an old college acquaintance post something on Facebook along the lines of how “unfair” it was that there were diversity scholarships he couldn’t apply to, and how he wished he could, because it would make it “so much easier” for him to find a job this summer.
I was stunned. My mind flashed to the dearth of minorities you find at any given firm. In fact, according to NCAA Research and the National Association for Law Placement, the average college baseball player has a better chance at being picked up by a Major League team than I (a Black woman) do at becoming a partner at a major law firm.
Earlier this month, the New York Times published an article describing their “Glass Ceiling Index” showing that in some areas of decision making, the ratio of men named John, James, William, or Robert to women with any name was as high as 4 to 1.
Not to mention that even though my Facebook friend and I could start at the same firm in the same department doing the same job after graduating from the same school, I’d likely be making up to 22 cents less on every dollar.
But I try very hard not to blame him in his time of job limbo for having such an untoward thought – just for broadcasting it.
Just like I can’t blame the people who hate putting on sunscreen, because a sunburn is the worst way the color of their skin can hurt them. Just as I try not to blame the people who constantly joke about how terrible being married is, but deny that right to couples that don’t look like them. Just like I can’t blame the college student who complains about being broke, but has never truly known the meaning of the word and always somehow has money to go out.
Because forgetting our own privilege is something we’re all guilty of. I constantly have to remind myself to check my own privilege. I should definitely exercise more, but I don’t have many health complaints. I probably couldn’t afford a new computer right this second, but I don’t worry about how I’ll afford groceries or an Uber to Law Prom this week. I felt absolutely wretched digging my car out of the snow for what felt like the entire month of February, and the only thing that got me through it was remembering that I actually have a car, and a decent chance of a place to park it (on most days). As terrible as it was navigating our way to school during the days the T service was spotty, we go to what is hands-down the best law school in the country, and we’ve been lucky enough to get the education that allowed us to come even this far.
Being cognizant of the advantages you have in life doesn’t reduce the validity of your personal struggles – it just makes you understand how hard it is for those with fewer advantages to hear you wish their situation was yours, as if somehow they have it easier.
Privilege is being at the front of the pack in Mario Kart and resenting those at the back for their really great items. Maturity is realizing that you don’t get a blue shell when you’re already in first place.
I’m what I like to call a 1.5L (first year, second semester). Check out my posts every week about things I wish I knew as an incoming 1L so you’ll actually know them when you get here. My inbox is always open so you can comment on here, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.