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Difficult But Essential: Leaving My World Of Privilege

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at CU Boulder chapter.

It took me ages to write this, mostly because I didn’t know how or where to start. I knew what I wanted to say but wasn’t sure how to say it. There’s a pressure I put upon myself because I know that what I have to say is important and I want to get it right. But I’m also afraid of sounding like a d*ck. Because people in privilege often do, whether we like to or not. So here’s my attempt at putting everything together. 

Privilege. If you’re new here, the best definition I can give you is as follows: Privilege can be defined as the advantages and benefits that some people receive because of social groups they are seen to be a part of. To put it even more simply, our system is built to support and protect certain individuals at the cost of and against others. White, cisgendered, heterosexual, upper class, able bodied, educated, Christian, neurotypical individuals benefit from our society. They feel safe and face few barriers when it comes to living a fulfilling life. Individuals who fall outside of these specific categories find the system is built against them. They are the victims of the -isms and -phobias. The system is built on them, not for them, and they face a constant battle to obtain the life of equity that those in privilege simply receive at birth. 

We could sit here and talk all day about how and where these systems exist; where the evidence is, how they were created, and how they are upheld. But that is a much more complex conversation than the one I want to have today. So. For the sake of this article, let’s all share in the mutual understanding that if we fall into one of the named categories, we have a degree of privilege. 

I identify as a white, college educated, able-bodied cisgendered woman. I also identify as a neurodivergent, non-Christian, queer woman. I get to walk both worlds as many of us do. I experience the world of privilege through my whiteness, my gender identification, education, and body. I experience the world of minorities through my queerness, spiritual beliefs, womanhood, and neurodivergency. I see this as a blessing and I’m thankful for both parts of my identity because it allows me to understand the difficulty, frustrations, and fear of the minority and the ease, ignorance, and bliss of the majority (the privileged). 

That’s why I felt the need to speak on privilege. Because as a minority I understand the frustration we often feel towards those in privilege for their ignorance, and I understand being the majority and holding that ignorance. 

I could write all day about what I experience as a queer, neurodivergent, spiritual woman in our world, but I don’t want to focus on that today. I’m writing today to my fellow members of privilege in the hopes that we can form an understanding of our place in this changing world where we are being reminded that it was built for us on the backs of those who are different from us. As we see a rise in social justice movements, calls for equity and equality, and demand for real and permanent change, it’s important for us to consider where and how we fall. Our way of life is being challenged. What does that mean for us? 

To begin, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge how uncomfortable this change can be. It is difficult to be blamed for the suffering of others – to be told that your very existence – things you cannot control such as your whiteness or your cisness – is the reason so many people struggle to survive, to feel welcomed, to feel safe. It can be incredibly difficult to sit in a room full of people who your ancestors have wronged. To listen to them speak, to hear their pain and know that you – directly or indirectly – have contributed to it. If you’re here reading this, it can be especially difficult because it means you are actively working to avoid causing such pain. So to hear that it still exists and that you’re a part of it, is difficult. 

It can also be unnerving. We’ve all heard stories about or experienced the microaggressions made every day – how the slip of the tongue can send someone spiraling. Not because of ill-intention (although, yes, sometimes because of ill-intention) but because of ignorance. And most of us, especially here, don’t want to be the perpetrators of that pain. So it’s nerve wracking to speak up, especially in settings where we are the privileged person in the room. How do we know if we’ve overstepped? When is it the right time to speak? How do I avoid repeating the mistakes of those who came before me? Or even more simply: how do I avoid being an a-hole on accident? 

All of these feelings are valid. I’ve felt them all on more than one occasion. I’ve felt the guilt and shame. I’ve known what it is to question if I should speak, if I should be in the room. I’ve known what it is to be at a loss for words or lost in the conversation. To feel the need to defend myself – to justify that I’m “not those people” or declare that it’s “not me.”

My past semester of college found me taking an Ethnic studies class in which we discussed the impact white American invaders had on the Mexican population that had settled in the area. Several students within the class were descendants of these ancestors and spoke of the pain their families still felt from these horrific events my ancestors had perpetrated. I remember feeling angry and ashamed. They spoke with such force and blunt honesty. It hurt. How could they say such things? I was there. I was trying. I was not “them.” But I was. I may not have hurled insults or chased families off their land, away from their homes. I may not have directly stomped on their throats to ensure my betterment. But I was here because I existed within the group that had. My life of luxury existed because I was born “right.” I was born “white.” And simply because I didn’t do those things, doesn’t mean I didn’t benefit because others had done them for me. So yes, it hurt. But it hurt a heck of a lot less than the pain my fellow students were feeling. So I zipped my lips and instead tried to listen.

This is daunting  work and it pushes many of us away from these causes. I’m here to tell you we can’t run away. They need our support just as much as we need their calls for justice. 

Consider this. When we enter these conversations, we feel discomfort. We feel nervous, overwhelmed, and a little on edge. We may feel that we don’t entirely belong in the setting, we may feel hostility. But this may only last for an hour or so. And then we get to return to our lives, our worlds that look like us, sound like us, were built for us. We can forget for a moment what was said and done. We can relax and resume our daily lives. The other people in the conversation cannot. That discomfort, edginess, fear we felt? They feel it every day of their lives and to a much more severe degree. They don’t get to go home and breathe or forget or distract. They return to a world that actively works against them every second of every day of every year. We have the luxury of ignorance. They do not. 

I find it helpful to remind myself of this when I’m in a room of people whose experiences, lives, and identities are different from my own. I might be uncomfortable, but that is nothing compared to what they have felt. It helps me get out of my head so that I don’t get stuck in my nerves and can be present to listen and learn. 

Because that’s really what we’re there to do. Listen and learn. It’s hard to know what to do, when to speak, and what to say. My advice? When in doubt, say nothing. If we are in these spaces, alongside these individuals, we are in their spaces and their communities. Our job is not to speak for them or at them, but to listen to them and try to understand the complexities of their experiences. We are not there to tell them what is right or wrong, to justify our existence, nor to remind them that “not all white people” are bad. We are there to listen, to understand, and to educate ourselves. So when in doubt, it’s often best to say nothing and learn.

This leads me to my next point: questions. How and when do we ask them? I’ll start with an example of how NOT to ask questions. 

I recently had a friend who was considering starting the process of transitioning. We were sitting over coffee, discussing the process and when and how and why they might begin. I remember very bluntly asking,“Well, would you want to get bottom surgery?”

To me, this was a harmless question born of curiosity, excitement, and concern for my friend. For them, rightly so, it was not. They paused to look at me and smiled. 

“Hannah,” they had said, “I know you didn’t mean it to be harmful, but that’s not a question you should ask…” 

I remember turning beet red and fumbling over an apology, explaining how I meant no offense and would not ask in the future. They were quick to forgive but explained to me why, as a cis person, the question of bottom surgery was, frankly, none of my dang business. 

“It would be like me asking if you want to get breast surgery. That’s invasive and none of my business, you know?”

Looking back, it seems obvious to me now. What was I thinking? But at the time, it was a question born of my own ignorance. So questions can be difficult, especially as we begin this journey of support and allyship.

When you have questions, it’s important to find the right time to ask them. And the right way to ask them. A few things to keep in mind. We should never interrupt to ask. Always listen through, perhaps take mental or physical notes. Let the person finish speaking and ensure you’ve listened thoroughly. Ask yourself if this question would benefit the group or yourself. If it’s yourself, for example if the question comes from a place of privilege and a disconnect between your world and theirs, it might be best to ask after the conversation or in private. Ask yourself if the question is invasive. I also often ask myself, hey, if they asked me this, would I feel exposed or uncomfortable? If the answer is yes, I don’t ask. There’s some things we don’t need to know or understand. 

Finally, ask yourself if you need to ask. I know. Sounds funny. But there are places to ask and places to not. It’s important to remember that it’s not their job to educate us but our job to educate ourselves. Consider the setting. If you’re in a lecture hall where a professional is lecturing about racism, it’s probably okay to ask. They are there to inform you. If you’re with a friend, on the couch, and they’re recounting an experience of transphobia, it’s probably not the best time to ask a question. They are being vulnerable and explaining something deeply personal. It’s not the time or place to start asking questions. This is a great place to listen, to comfort, and to learn. In these settings, it’s best for us to seek out the answer ourselves. Pick up books, watch TedTalks of well known activists, attend lectures or take classes. It’s our job to learn, not their job to teach. 

Knowing when and how to speak is another difficult topic. When we are in spaces of social justice or change, we will be reminded that we are the problem. That we are the cause of the suffering because of traits that we cannot control like our gender identification or our whiteness. The first thing I’d like to remind us of is that they are suffering because of aspects of their identity that they cannot control such as their race or their queerness. We’ve all been lumped into categories that we have no control over. So when you feel that “well I can’t control my whiteness” remember they cannot control their blackness. In short…let’s all chill. We know we can’t control our traits. We’re here to talk about how we can uplift all aspects of the human identity, not defend ourselves because we can’t control them. 

Second, defense. It’s an urge we as human beings have. To defend ourselves. I know this because I have felt and done it before. And regretted it afterwards. In these spaces or conversations, we can often feel “attacked” or “blamed” and we will feel the need to defend ourselves. To justify ourselves. To declare that “we’re not all like that” or “we’re not all -ist or -phobic”. When we feel this urge to defend,I stop and remember a few things. One, no one’s blaming you directly, but rather they are critiquing aspects of the social categories you are a part of. They are not critiquing your whiteness but rather the system that deemed your whiteness “superior”. Two, we benefit indirectly. We have all been conditioned to view certain groups as “normal” or “superior” and to view and value other groups as less than. Because of this conditioning, whether we see it or not, we benefit. I can find and access a bathroom wherever I go. I’m not followed in stores nor do I worry if the manner in which I speak or present will be deemed “professional” because my identity is seen as “normal” and “professional” simply because it’s been viewed that way for years. Is my existence racist, ableist, or transphobic? No. It’s an existence. But it’s an existence that is constantly benefitting because of the identity in which it inhabits. So, I may not be racist, but I’m benefitting from racist systems. Remember this when we feel that we need to defend. No, we’re not the -ist or the -phobic, but we’re benefiting from systems that are.  I find it best to sit back, remember that, and begin to learn how to change these systems. 

How does this relate to the question of when and how to speak? I ask myself this: am I speaking out of support and validation or defense? Am I contributing to what a person has said and validating their experience? Or am I questioning them, throwing up my walls, and defending my privilege? If it’s the latter, I don’t speak. Instead, I try to reflect and understand what pricked me. Work on that, address it, so that I don’t feel the need to defend in future conversations. Is it easy? No. It’s incredibly uncomfortable but so necessary. The less time we spend defending, the more time we can spend validating, accepting, and creating spaces for the changes we all want to see. 

I want to talk a little about spaces. I was reminded of this concept in a class where a student described the pushback they were receiving for creating an all-person-of-color dance troupe. My initial reaction was, well, why does it need to be only people of color? What if a white ally wants to join?” Then I was reminded of my queerness. I was reminded of my time spent in queer-only spaces; that safety and security I felt. That breath of fresh air where I didn’t have to watch what I had to say, where there were no egg shells to walk on, where I could speak and know I was understood. I realized she probably felt the same way in her troupe. In a world where every space is built for us people of privilege, it can be wonderful to have a space without us. And that’s okay. Not all spaces are for us and that’s okay. For now, we need those Black spaces. Those queer spaces. Those support groups and centers. Because the rest of the world is a space built for us, they need a space built for them. For now. Because our work and our job is to ensure that they don’t need those spaces to feel a sense of community and safety. Our job is to ensure that our spaces becomes their space; that they feel safe and accepted with us. That we can celebrate and welcome all identities. That space is shared and celebrated. 

Finally, a reminder: no one will ever be a graduated ally. There is no certificate, no stamp of approval, no “congrats, you know it all, now go forth!” We will always be learning, growing and coming to understand the world and its workings. Why? Because we will never fully understand what it is to live outside our world of privilege. We can sympathize, stand with, listen, and learn, but we will never know what it is exactly to fear for our lives and well-being because of a part of ourselves which we cannot control. Because of this, we will never stop trying to understand, learn about their experiences, altering and working with our knowledge to include more people, more perspectives, and more tools. We will always be learning, always be seeking to understand.

There’s so much to say and write in terms of privilege. And I feel I’ve only scratched the surface. But I hope I’ve gotten a bit of my point across. To convey that yes, it’s uncomfortable to have these conversations – to be in spaces where our privilege is brought to the forefront and questioned. Where we are held accountable for our history. And it is so important we are there. That we experience the discomfort. That we question our place and role in the system. That we interrogate our privilege. Because if we can change ourselves and become aware of our benefits and our roles, we can help shake our society at its roots. If those in power begin to acknowledge that the system is oppressive, power will be redistributed. If privileged individuals  acknowledge our faults and work tirelessly to address them, we can and will change the world. If we stand beside those who lack our privilege, if we come to them and acknowledge they’re right, we can work as one to bring about the change we both so desperately need. 

That is our role. To question and change. To live in discomfort, experience it, bask in it, and ensure that we create a world where no one has to feel it ever again. Because we should all feel welcomed, safe, validated, and loved for exactly who we are.

Hannah van Duursen

CU Boulder '25

Hannah (she/they) is a contributing writer at Her Campus at the CU Boulder chapter in Colorado. She covers a variety of topics ranging from pressing social justice issues to book reviews to discussions about mental and emotional health. Outside of their Her Campus work, Hannah enjoys volunteering at their local Planned Parenthood and seeking out other opportunities to give back to their community. Hannah is currently working towards a bachelors degree in Women and Gender studies and a minor in Spanish. She's passionate about social justice work and hopes to one day obtain her PhD to become a professor of Women and Gender studies. When not campaigning for human rights, Hannah can be found hiking in the woods or diving into a good book. They adores cats and can often be found at their local cat cafe sipping hot chocolate and hanging with the kitties! She's also a major movie buff and will talk for hours on end about her latest marathon to anyone who will listen. With her interest in the arts, it’s no surprise she enjoys creating herself. She currently houses a large collection of poems she’s written that cover everything from her thoughts on puppies to her questions about what humanities' role is in this small corner of the universe.