The Nuances of Privilege and Oppression

A Dichotomy or an Intersection?

Duke Unfiltered | Karla Colley | April 8, 2016

  • Copied

Duke students are some of the most hated students in the country. Besides being hated for our killer basketball team and for having the best coach in the history of college sports, many people hate us for who they perceive us to be: a bunch of rich, privileged kids with no authentic connection to reality. While I’m very proud to be a Duke student and have always considered myself to be someone who has lived a fortunate life, I still never really thought of myself as a part of this notorious category of pretentious assholes. In all honesty, I figured that I was not a rich, white male, so how much privilege could I really possess? I still would not say that the negative stereotype surrounding Duke students accurately describes me, or many of us in fact, but the last few weeks have forced me to seriously think about the concept of privilege and how that may include me despite my status as an oppressed minority.

I’ll be spending my summer in Cape Town, South Africa working with a local organization as a part of DukeEngage. This specific program has multiple themes, but I would say that the overarching ones deal with racial/ethnic relations, human rights, and civil liberties. To prepare for working with South Africans and the cultural shock that we will most likely face, our program leaders host meetings every other week where we read about and discuss South African history. Learning about black South Africans’ fight has been an incredibly important experience for me that I am sure will only continue once the program starts. It has forced me to question my previous definition of privilege and to question how I am privileged in comparison to how I am oppressed.

While race has been a constant source of turbulence in this country, it has particularly been at the forefront of national conversation since the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager that sparked the creation of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Since then, multiple black men and women have been added to the seemingly never-ending list of black people unjustly killed. To be a minority in this country, especially to be black, is to be in constant defense of your humanity. It is very important that I make it clear that I don’t want to detract from the racism and gross injustice that we, as minorities, face. Our concerns are valid; however, I also feel that I owe it to myself and to the people less advantaged than me to acknowledge that even though I too face oppression, that oppression takes a different form and is often intermingled with privilege.

It would be correct to say that my skin complexion is very similar to those of black South Africans, but it would be incorrect to conclude that this shared trait means that we have undergone the same experiences. While this might seem like common sense, it was a significant realization for me that took a while to fully understand and digest. The same way that people often see Africa as a monolith instead of as many different countries with distinct cultures, people often view blackness and the black experience as all being the same. While I knew about the black diaspora made up of African descended people from all over the world, I never seriously considered how our experiences might have differed. For one, Jamaica suffered through colonialism, imperialism, and slavery, along with colorism, the subsequent child of these systems. These have all left their own scars that my country is still working to overcome; however, I have never lived through apartheid, and while its foundation was undoubtedly cemented in these systems, it is a completely different experience that my people and I have not faced.

“It is necessary to recognize and understand this distinction that while we are both black, we have not experienced the same type of oppression. Our black experiences have been different, and theirs is not one that I can rightfully claim.”

Before moving to the United States, I had never really faced racial discrimination. Jamaica is certainly far from being perfect, but our social hierarchy is mostly based on classism, not race. While this can be connected to colorism, this is not always the case. I make this distinction not to say that one type of oppression is better than the other, but simply to show the basic fact that these different types of oppression exist. I believe most of us subconsciously know this, but if you are like me, it was not something that you actively thought about or really paid attention to.

Most people of color, specifically those of deeper complexions, can attest that in general, darkness is viewed as inferior in most societies. Despite this, the discrimination that black people face is not necessarily the same in all places, and I believe this could extend to other minority groups as well. Yes, I’m black. On top of that, I’m a black woman. Be that as it may, I have also grown up in an upper middle class family in Connecticut. Being a first generation immigrant, I have had the exciting experience of spending the majority of my childhood on what I consider to be one of the most beautiful islands – a place that I still very much consider home. Living in both places has given me the invaluable experience of being exposed to different cultures, both of which have helped me grow as a person. I attend the #8 university in the country, and arguably one of the best in the world. There is no doubt that Duke should certainly do more to improve the on campus experiences of its minority students and workers, but I still recognize and am grateful for the wonderful opportunities this institution has afforded me. So yes, I’m a black woman attending a predominately white institution, but I’m also a multicultural, educated black woman from a relatively well-off family. Yes, I’m from a developing nation with a dysfunctional government, ridiculously high national debt, a high crime rate, and high-income inequality. But while there, I was fortunate enough to attend one of the best prep schools on the island and to live a life free of financial stress because my parents had grown up dirt poor and were determined that my life would be drastically different.

“I’m oppressed in multiple ways, but also very privileged in others.”

For me, these attempts to both accept and reconcile my experiences with oppression and privilege have been quite difficult. I have found myself questioning if possessing instances of privilege within an overall society constructed on institutional racism qualifies as privilege within its purest form because of the discrimination and limitations that I still face. To demonstrate, whenever a student addresses the struggles they face being a person of color on a predominantly white, elitist campus, as a student body, we are quick to quip that they should simply be grateful for the opportunity to attend here. We immediately get aggressive and defensive with our rebuttals that they should just leave if they hate it so much. I sometimes have to wonder just how much indebtedness I should feel towards this space. This campus suffocates me with screams of how I should feel gratified to attend such a prestigious university, but there also seems to be this notion that the majority of minorities here, particularly African-Americans, were only accepted because of affirmative action and the need to meet a set quota rather than on our academic merit. This tells me that a lot of my fellow students truly believe that I, and others who look like me, do not deserve to be here and are merely filling space – or even worse, that we took the spot away from a more “deserving” student. While I will never deny the wonderful opportunities that Duke has provided me, I have to question how much privilege there actually is in being a part of an environment that constantly doubts my qualifications and prematurely issues harsh judgment about my capabilities because of the color of my skin.

Our campus perpetuates the idea that I cannot have genuinely enjoyed my experience here or love this university because of some critiques I may have, which is simply inaccurate. Yes, I love Duke, but that does not mean that I should have to or will turn a blind eye to its racially charged atmosphere or institutionalized racism. It is because I love this place that I want it to become its best possible version. The limited privilege within oppression does not and will not make me immune to racism and discrimination. My many Duke sweatshirts and “respectable” family certainly have not stopped me from being trailed by sales associates in department stores or from being confronted with rumors that my parents must be drug dealers because black people apparently can’t be legitimately successful. It certainly has not prevented me from being called the n-word. We, including myself, do not have the right to tell people how to deal with their oppression.

Overall, my intention is not to turn this into an Oppression Olympics. I’m not saying that as blacks and other minority groups, we should stop bringing attention to the many injustices we face and end our fight for equality in this country because the suffering of other people could be perceived as worse. What I’m saying is that it is critical that we recognize these varied intersections of oppression and privilege because true progress cannot be achieved if we don’t realize that everyone is starting from different stages, even within a group that is generally oppressed. I urge you all to think about the different kinds of privilege you might possess that you may have easily skipped over and how you can best utilize that privilege to help others.

As someone who has experienced both forms of oppression and privilege, this is all to say that the lines between the two are not necessarily as clear-cut as we prefer to think of them as.

“Privilege can’t be neatly defined and categorized because there are different factors such as race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc. that impact one’s opportunities to different degrees, just as there are different forms of oppression. Just because you have not personally experienced it or witnessed it does not mean that it does not exist.”

The situation is a complex one, which means that the solution must also be multifaceted and take into account these multiple variables. Perhaps this is why the opinions regarding the Allen building occupation are so stratified. While I consider myself to be a woke person, I still have a lot to learn. The last few weeks have been a wake up call for me, and perhaps I haven’t been the only person sound asleep.