Of Paperweights and Privilege

Our conversation has taken a sharp turn to privilege.

She is quoting Eleanor Roosevelt to me – I am familiar, I say – and she is twirling her locks in one hand, cupping an Americano in the other. She tells me that her daughter has gone off to college. A small liberal arts school out East, she says, and she’s come back just completely bonkers.

Her daughter speaks of privilege now, of how she has it and others don’t and she feels a bit of shame in that, and the people she splits the Ramen bill with are opening her eyes to so many injustices and Mom, don’t you get it?

And her mother, sitting at the gingham-covered table with me today, says this:

Doesn’t she know how hard her father and I worked for what she’s been given?

I hear of this often, the question rooted in panic. A false assumption that in order to accept the posture of a privileged position, we must deny the reality of a hard-working past. A fear that if we admit any sense of preference or partiality, our comfortable lifestyles will be rendered undeserving, nullifying our best efforts toward self-reliance, empowerment.

And yet: we are undeserving, of course.
(Every last one of us.)

Years ago, my pig-tailed friend teaches me to play Rock-paper-scissors during recess. Cross-legged on the hot asphalt, we suffer through all manners of combinations – rock vs. scissors, scissors vs. paper, scissors vs. scissors – until I flatten my palm into paper; her fist forming a rock.

Paper covers rock, I say. I win.
Not if it’s a paperweight, she boasts as she pins my hand to the ground with hers. You lose.

I tell her that it’s not fair, that she’s changed the rules, that I didn’t want to play anymore.

It’s just a game, she laughs, scurrying off for four-square before the bell rings.

We are older now, and there are balled fists in the name of intersectionality, of progressiveness, of third wave feminism and human rights. Fights for injustice, inclusion. Hashtags labeling activism, resistance. Shouts. Marches. Resistance.

So many of us don’t want to play anymore.

The rules:

Favor is granted to the strongest, the most secure, the highest of the hierarchy. May the best man win. Survival of the fittest. Be sensible. Fair is fair.

This, then, is privilege: the ability to name the rules, to change the game, to appeal to a system where justice lives on a sharp slant.

The ability to justify our wins, should we choose.

Doesn’t she know how hard her father and I worked for what she’s been given?

And I think that’s just the thick of it, right there. We live in a world where certain voices are granted the freedom to call this life a rock for one and a paperweight for the other. A world divided by the oppressed and the oppressor, a world where naming is of infinite importance.

It’s just a game, they say.

A world where privilege is often granted to those laughing loudest.

I once read that, for ones placed in a position of privilege, it is not our job to be a voice for the voiceless. (No one is truly voiceless, after all.) But it is perhaps our job to pass the mic to those not yet heard.

To learn of the many ways in which they have become crushed by rocks we’ve wielded into paperweights.
To listen as they name it all, the whole of their experience.

This morning, I read this:
“For who is God, besides the LORD? And who is a rock, besides our God?

And I suppose it’s as simple as that, that this is precisely what I’m working toward in my own life, in coffee shop conversations and elsewhere: the naming of what is. The naming of what we are not.

The listening of the rest.

Should you wish to join me, here are a few voices deserving of a mic:

The New Jim Crow
Hillbilly Ellegy
When Helping Hurts
Ain’t I A Woman?
Between the World and Me
Tears We Cannot Stop


p.s. The other thing on my nightstand? This planner.

  • Thanks for your post. All questions and conversations I am having and discussing as well. Have you read ‘Small Great Things’ by Jodi Picoult? It stirred a lot of great conversations on this topic.

  • Have you read Waking Up White? It’s problematic in some ways, but I think it’s an important book on the topic of privilege.

      • I’d also recommend White Like Me by Tim Wise. I read it in college in my Anthropology of Race class and it turned my world upside down. So many things I had never understood or realized before. it was incredibly eye opening.

  • beautifully beautifully said. the more i learn of my own privilege the more aware I am of the lack of it in others :/ i love the idea of “passing the mic” because I’m not the great white savior, i’m just someone who was born into privilege and if i can pass the mic to someone else who needs their voice amplified then so be it.

  • Can someone please explaine to me what rights a white person has over any other race,or opportunities?Just because some people are willing to work for what they have instead of steal,how is that privileged?

    • Hi David. Can you clarify your last statement — “to work for what they have instead of steal”? More specifically: how did you intend for this to add relevance to a conversation about privilege; who do you consider to be stealing instead of working? I want to be sure I’m steering clear of any assumptions before I offer a response. Thank you!

  • I love the work of Ijeoma Oluo. She writes great pieces for The Establishment (an online publication).

  • This post was so beautifully written and such a thoughtful prose on today’s world. Thank you for being a listener, a mic-passer, and a coffee shop conversationalist. These roles are essential.

  • Wow. I loved loved loved the way you used your white and your privilege to share about this. The past few months I have really been digging into how privilege has effected me as a white woman and acknowledging how my own privilege has brought me to where I am today has helped me understand how there were so many things outside of my ‘hard work’ that have lead to where I am. I highly, highly recommend Just Mercy as well. There is an amazing Facebook group called Be The Bridge to Racial Unity that has grown the voices that speak to race and privilege as well.

    • i LOVED just mercy, yes! great read. and thank you so much for your kind, honest words. :)

  • This post is such a succinct and poetic account of privilege. I too feel the guilty weight of it sometimes. Guilt of course is not helpful and conviction is, but conviction of what? What do I do with my conviction? Thanks for the links!

    • Thank you, Emily! I appreciated this segment from The Establishment of small ways to move toward that conviction:
      “You can ask your office why there are no managers of color and while you might get a dirty look and a little resentment, you probably won’t get fired. You can be the “real Americans” that politicians court. You can talk to fellow white people about why the water in Flint and Standing Rock matters, without being dismissed as someone obsessed with playing “the race card.” You can ask cops why they stopped that black man without getting shot. You can ask a school principal why they only teach black history one month a year and why they pretty much never teach the history of any other minority group in the U.S. You can explain to your white friends and neighbors why their focus on “black on black crime” is inherently racist. You can share articles and books written by people of color with your friends who normally only accept education from people who look like them. You can help ensure that the comfortable all-white enclaves that white people can retreat to when they need a break from “identity politics” are not so comfortable. You can actually persuade, guilt, and annoy your friends into caring about what happens to us. You can make a measurable impact in the fight against racism if you are willing to take on the uncomfortable truths of your privilege.”

  • Thoughtful and inspiring, though heavy post. Thanks for putting it out there! Also wanted to add to the reading recs Too Small to Ignore.

  • Hi There! I’m a little late to this conversation; however, one more book rec (or interview to search) is The Dream Hoarders. It’s been all over NPR (and elsewhere) the last couple of months. I haven’t read the book yet, but have listened to at least 3 in depth interviews with the author. Good stuff. And uncomfortable! ;)

  • I picked up Tears We Cannot Stop after reading this post, and I’m having a hard time reading it. In addition to it feeling somewhat blasphemous in the author’s approach as a sermon, it’s almost like a blast of hatred. His tone is such that I find it hard to continue reading without it feeling like a constant slap in the face.

  • I picked up Tears We Cannot Stop after reading this post, and I’m having a hard time reading it. In addition to it feeling somewhat blasphemous in the author’s approach as a sermon, it’s almost like a blast of hatred. His tone is such that I find it hard to continue reading without it feeling like a constant slap in the face.

    • ah, i’ve heard this reaction from other people, too! it is VERY fierce, and there’s some language as well. i think what i’m appreciating about this book is it feels raw and emotive, and i’m working really hard to allow the deep-rooted anger so many people have felt they must silence. for a lighter (less yelling!) read, another reader mentioned jodi piccoult’s ‘small great things’ and it is LOVELY – light, beautiful so far. same message, entirely different approach.

  • This is so perfect. I think that I was that Indiana girl who went off to college at a liberal arts school (South, not East, though!). My parents think that I’ve become liberalized and have these crazy ideas now. This piece really speaks to me.

    I read Between the World and Me, and I agree, I think it sheds light on a side of life that I personally am not familiar with. I think literature like that is important in today’s climate. Erin, your words are beautiful, thank you.

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