Understanding Privilege and Merit

April 8, 2017
By ChiyoR BRONZE, Bronx, New York
ChiyoR BRONZE, Bronx, New York
2 articles 5 photos 2 comments

Privilege, specifically in America, is difficult to conquer because of the lack of communal efforts to admit where privilege does or does not lie. Therefore, we develop an incessant habit of incriminating others because we cannot see our own privilege. In fact, Roxane Gay’s “Bad Feminist” addresses the implications of privilege and how status divides, forcing communities to polarize themselves. Gay understands that she is privileged because of her education, but as a woman, as an African-American, and a child of immigrants, she is aware that she lacks complete entitlement, which is the middle ground between existent and nonexistent privilege. The middle ground between existent and nonexistent privilege is often where low-income students of color find themselves, like Dena Simmons. Simmon’s addresses imposter syndrome and how students of color have to remove themselves from their culture to fit in. The idea is often that there is a barrier between the white and the black, but it also becomes interesting to delve into the relations of students of color from different backgrounds. Privilege is a larger scale systemic issue outside of college campuses and Gay’s focus on the dividing power of status, Vern? Myers confrontational approach towards racism and bias, and Simmon’s warning about imposter syndrome emphasizes the value of seeing privilege as something each person has and not those who are visibly privileged.


Privilege is not an either or conflict because privilege appears in many forms. There is the privilege of having two parents or the privilege to go to a charter school or the privilege to see, hear, think properly. Gay, however, believes that privilege is not black and white. People who wear eyeglasses, for example, have the privilege to see, but to see poorly. Gay realizes her own privilege as an educated woman is not mutually exclusive of her disadvantage as a woman, a black person, or the daughter of Haitian immigrants (Gay, 2014, 16). Privilege is the unearned access to resources only readily available to some people as a result of  their advantage within a social group. The black and white that most people see privilege in represents the historical divide of black and white people or people of color and white people, an issue which is very much prevalent today. However, as Gay suggests, privilege, which is more spectral than binary, more subjective than objective can be among racial groups (Gay, 2015, 19). Islam is an example of a group, where advantage is split; a Muslim who is African is very distringuagbel from a Muslim from a middle eastern country. The African individual is just as advantaged as s/he is disadvantaged to be viewed as a “thug,” rather than a follower of Islam. S/he, in the wake of Donald Trump’s immigration Executive Order, would have the privilege of having access to America. Privilege is as diverse as America and the distinction of privilege becomes important within a niche because people can separate according to the privileges they are provided.

In fact, in the “The Politics of Respectability,” Gay quotes CNN news anchor Don Lemon who provides five tips about how black people should go out of their way to gain the respect and positive attention that they should already deserve.

Understandably, a respectable man would not sag his jean and show his boxers, but there was never a high regard for the black community and some people such as the men who sag unfortunately only provided the excuse for disrespect towards black people. Lemon explains that “black people should stop using the N-word, black people should respect their communities by not littering, black people should stay in school, black people should have fewer children out of wedlock, and, most importantly, black men should pick up their pants” (Gay, 2014, 258). Here, Lemon is displaying an almost condescending conformational bias in which his tips are only suggesting that the black culture is wrong and must be changed in terms of the culturally accepted white majority. Gay counters that while people like Lemon come from a good place, they neglect to realize that giving this type of advice to the oppressed with the intentions of help them live ‘better’ is not, in fact, helping them. The obvious notable intention of his tips is that they are directed towards the black community as if black people alone cause problems for themselves. Lemon is a black man himself who made it through similar difficulties such as growing up with a single mother, but he excels above his peers and overcame statistics. There is value in thinking about what stereotypes individuals have about those who are successful and of the same race.


In fact, a conversation about the success of people within a certain ethnicity becomes the pillar for pressure upon children to strive for certain successes. For example, there is the danger of mocking those who have not lead a “favorable” life and are otherwise disrespected, at times for their race or ethnicity. In Myers’s TedTalk about confronting bias, she explains that bigotry runs from generation to generation because “we're not saying anything” and certain comments are left unchecked and reverberate in the audience of children” (Myers, 2014).  In terms of sexism in my home, my parents opinions on the role of women are often different from my siblings and I. Perhaps the topic of cooking will come up and my mother will say that the woman should be in kitchen, which would strike a chord in me. My brother, more vocal, would jokingly exclaim--that’s sexist! I’ve constantly expressed my opinion women are not made to be objects and housewives and that has clearly manifested in my brother. Children pick things up like sponges. The only way to do away with the racism and bigotry is to start as an adult because children have no one else to look up to, but their elders. In order to cease racism,Doing away with racism starts with doing away with bystanders and being active in acknowledging racism within all of us. As Myers explains, there is still a sense of superiority rooting from years of institutional discrimination that  causes us to devalue young black men (Myers, 2014). What counts is not telling a young black boy from calling his friends the N-word, but showing that young black man that he is not isn't equivalent to any form of the N-word or stereotype, but he has the potential to be a doctor or lawyer or like any other white or Asian man and that he isn’t meant for basketball because of his skin color and that there is nothing wrong if he only manages to work minimum wage. At the end of the day, we have to be willing to acknowledge the potential in someone because of their actions and not the feature that make them.


The inability to accept the idea fact that one's accomplishments are an achievement of their own strife is imposter syndrome. Highmark students are always haunted by the fear of being exposed as frauds who are meritless, when that is not the case. A student with imposter syndrome, will struggle to acknowledge her abilities because she feels as if she is not actually doing any leg work and am benefitting from my environment. I, for example, would feel like a fraud because she has simply been met with the rigors of a preparatory school. Had I been left at my public high school I may have not put in as much effort in my high school career. Then, the fear gets worse as I skim my past essays. I read my arguments I find no value in them--what makes this paper such an amazing paper? I am always ambiguous after a math exam and often do worse. I am a fraud. My grade does not do not reflect that. My mannerisms do not reflect that. The slang? No no--save that for an unprofessional setting. I am constantly trying to say “asking” instead of “axing” (Simmons, 2016). I have difficulty accepting what my identity is. I often admire my Ghanaian heritage, find myself proud to be Ghanaian and am then surrounded by Ghanaians who can actually speak their native language. I speak English. I have always been trying to figure out who I am and learning about “dead white people” is no less reassuring than being lost in the dark without a flashlight. At the same time it becomes suffocating and exhausting to learn about black struggle when you live it, breathe it, become aware of it. As Simmons explains, “every child deserves an education that guarantees the safety to learn in the comfort of one's own skin” (Simmons, 2016). Imposter syndrome roots from the unconsciousness of one's awareness of privilege. Highmark students devalue themselves because of their privileges. As an African American student, the only reason they passed an exam may have been due to an an online resource they found. Perhaps a Hispanic student dismisses the success of their ability to write successful essays because they were surrounded by books in their childhood. We always pay attention to how others are advantaged, but we have to realize that we are privileged in different ways.


Privilege is a difficult topic to tread because it is closely tied to race; especially in America. Roxane Gay’s discussion about status’s power to divide, Myers urange for people to become aware of and confront their biases, and Simmon’s illumination on the danger of imposter syndrome emphasizes the need to construe our ideas of privilege and to put one another in each others shoes. Privilege is sticky and difficult to transverse because people are unable to talk about what privilege is, what it looks like, how to approach a situation in which privilege is the deciding factor that makes or breaks a peaceful interaction. Just as Gay understands her privileged, and the lack thereof, and the privilege of others, she is aware of the struggles that many people go through--she becomes more empathetic. She becomes more human. The same goes for Simmons who understands that there is more to life than the accomplishments of the white man or Myers who knows how it feels to be weary of a black man but comfortable with another. Privilege can only be properly handled when everyone can state their privilege, take responsibility of it and humble themselves in understanding of what their counterpart may be lacking.

The author's comments:

While this was an assignment, I was inspired to write about a topic of my own that discussed the dangers of being a student of color who lacks certain privlages.

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