Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

The importance of recognizing privilege

Identity is shaped by privilege
Judith Gibson-Okunieff
(Collegian File Photo)

Catalyzed by personality, experience and history, identity is born. It is at the locus of conception that begins this evolution of character, shaped by the ever-changing tides of life. In essence, identity is the base definition of each individual — a topic both personal and human. Within this, aspects such as race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation and socioeconomic class build the exterior of how one sees themselves and others in light of the larger world — a standard by which we divide ourselves among social roles. It is for this reason that identity is so often susceptible to criticism in discussions of privilege and disadvantage.

However, I reject this notion. Advantage and disadvantage characterize intersectional identity. To recognize these elements validates the existence of systemic inequalities and bestows upon the individual a glimpse into differing perspectives as a medium to combat societal oppression and passivity.

As I have discussed in my previous editorials, “Subtle classism in a university environment” and “Poor students left behind,” my background is rooted in poverty and homelessness, a disadvantage that today has become the most profound part of my identity. It is not a history that I wanted to accept. For the longest time I tried to act as if I was someone else. Under this masked persona, I learned to act in the image of financial stability; peers, acquaintances and strangers were the root of my study in how to blend in. However, erasing identity is a futile task — one that only amplifies the character that’s fixed in the shadows. For this reason, I began to express the core of my identity as a ‘survivor’ and a ‘son of poverty,’ using my background to give voice to a demographic often ignored, marginalized and seen to be expendable.

I am versed in the life of adequacy — the pinnacle of suburbia — while I too understand the impact of constant instability and poverty.

From then on, socioeconomic disadvantage became ingrained in how I defined myself, justified by everyday nuances in conversation that showcased class differences. The dorm room — a target of criticism and exasperation for its confined structure — symbolized a new beginning for me. I previously lived in hotel rooms no more than double the size of a traditional college dorm, and sharing said space with my parents and six younger siblings was my norm. While others plan spring break trips and restaurant runs, I devote my time to academics, extracurricular activities and work, as these are the main avenues for which I will be able to supersede my circumstances. While I stay at the University of Massachusetts for holiday weekends, others have the luxury of returning to their homes. While others lament over the infrequent unsatisfactory “Late Night” options at Berkshire Dining Commons, I think back to my family’s restricted diet of microwavable chicken pot pie, soup, ramen noodles and other canned goods.

It is the pieces of our life, such as access to secure food and shelter, that we take for granted. What is second nature to one is a luxury to another. But these characteristics are so integral to our personal development and extend far beyond class privilege.

What I first discounted from various conversations showcasing privilege were the advantages with which I grew up by birth. The individual experiences of trauma were so powerful that they shaped how I saw myself — to look beyond that was uncomfortable, but it was necessary. Before my family lost our home and the entire course of our lives changed, we lived in white suburbia. I now benefit from dual perspectives, as I am versed in the life of adequacy — the pinnacle of suburbia — while I too understand the impact of constant instability and poverty.

On another level, as a white, cisgender male I recognize that my ability to change my financial reality has partially been rooted in these outward characteristics. If I had not been born in this manner, I would have been further discounted as an outsider and thought to be unworthy of empathy. New York University professor Charlton McIlwain reinforces this idea when he states, “For whites, poverty is a ‘failure of the system,’ with a narrative that says, ‘You’ve done all you can, you’ve worked hard and here you are with no safety net.’”

These advantages do not take away from the gravity of what my family has undergone, but allow me to understand a greater perspective. Rooted in systemic inequality, people of color and minority groups are oppressed and discriminated against. As some groups are disproportionately targeted over others, just one consequence of a passive ignorance is privilege. It is from this and other realizations that we need to recognize our advantages and disadvantages to combat institutional oppression. Socioeconomic status, race, gender and sexual orientation are formative characteristics that need recognition for productive conversation. A call to admit privilege is not a rallying cry for ridicule, but rather an avenue for understanding and growth.

Timothy Scalona is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected].

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  • J

    John aimoFeb 20, 2018 at 3:35 pm

    What is wrong with privilege? What’s wrong with being born wealthy or good parents or in a stable nation? What’s wrong with having opportunity? It’s called being -fortunate- and to rail against that is a bit perverse. The left has a desire to tear down and dismiss what is good. Their criticism of privilege stems from envy and resentment.

    If someone is privileged, you might think, good for them, they are lucky. And if a person is truly privileged then instead of feeling guilty as the left would want them to feel; they should either give back to others, help them ascend or simply enjoy their fortune.

  • N

    NITZAKHONFeb 20, 2018 at 6:46 am

    You were born in America, which puts you ahead of untold billions in life’s lottery.

    Tell you what, let’s ship you off to, oh, Haiti for a year.

    • K

      KevinFeb 21, 2018 at 7:04 pm

      I am genuinely curious why you would comment that. The article specifically says he’s not calling for ridicule. Did you not see that? Also, who are you trying to impress people with the comedic competence of an insecure middle schooler?