BY DEANA KAJMAKOVIC
My generation is very fond of name calling. We’re infatuated with the idea of a black and white world, an America in which you either are or aren’t, and we’ve come up endless words to write on the metaphorical “Hello, my name is ____” stickers we slap on each other. This polarization is both the cause and effect of a never-ending cycle; we divide ourselves into tight factions, moving solely within our own circles, and I suppose this gave us the idea that some are inherently unable to understand the lives of others because they were born with something those others will never have.
I would like to preface this piece by attempting to paint a picture of how torn I was for weeks over exactly what I wanted to say with it. When I proposed the idea to my parents, they frowned and reminded me of the couple down the street who complained about their “neighbors from a third world country” or the two boys who had ended their toast at my Sweet Sixteen with, “And by the way, Serbia started World War I.” “All of that pain because of your ethnicity, and somehow you’re the privileged one?” my father snorted, and I sat and stared back at him without a response.
And to some extent, he had a point: to the hypothetical upper class, sixteenth generation white American named John Smith, some parts of my life or those of my parents may seem like a disaster. My family knows a lot of John Smith’s, so we see the things they have that we don’t––a common name that doesn’t draw in non-democratic questions, generations worth of connections, American college degrees and the savings to pay for more, to name a few––and this type of behavior is completely normal. It is so normal that it has become a widespread epidemic among Americans, resulting in the obsession with those who have it easier than us and the inability to recognize those who have it harder.
I’ll put my own case into perspective: I was born in Mountain View, earning citizenship by birthright, but to two parents who were not citizens at the time. My father received his papers a year later, and my mother still holds her Canadian citizenship and United States Green Card. By today’s standards, I am what some would call an “anchor baby,” a child born to a non-citizen mother in a country which has birthright citizenship, sometimes seen as providing an advantage to family members seeking citizenship. Lawmakers including our own president have called for policy changes regarding Americans like me, claiming that we are the backbone of illegal immigration, yet no one is calling for my deportation for one simple reason: I’m white.
Instinctively, I want to tell myself that racism and discrimination is a thing of a past. That this is a new America, a land of freedom and equality. That because I don’t judge people based on the color of their skin, or their economic status, gender or sexual orientation, they have the same opportunities as I do. I don’t want to believe that I have privilege. But telling myself this makes me just as complicit in the problem as those that are enforcing it more directly. I have never lived in fear of my parents’ or my own deportation from the country we call home. I have never been told not to wear a hoodie when walking down the street at night because someone might mistake my cell phone for a weapon and shoot me. I have never woken up in a body that I know possibly can’t be my own or struggled to figure out which bathroom I’m allowed to use.
For no particular reason, I happened to be born a white, cisgender straight woman, and also for no particular reason, those characteristics inherently make life a lot easier for me than for many others. I will never live through certain painful experiences, simply because of privileges that I did absolutely nothing to deserve. Every American can identify at least one of such privileges that they have, and the inability to understand them causes us to pretend that these inherent differences don’t exist. That is the root of the problem.
Talk of privilege in terms of race makes many people uncomfortable. “So what?” some ask, “I have to be ashamed because I’m white?” No, but the end of these insurmountable barriers starts with the acknowledgement of their existence. Once those with white privilege accept that they have it, they will see that in the case of racial differences, it is impossible to simply “put yourself in one’s shoes.” The reason that this country still fails to properly address issues like xenophobia and police brutality is that many of those who form polarizing opinions can not even begin to understand the situations in which they insert themselves. For comic relief, I’ll end by saying that I can’t “un-bleach” myself, and I’m not asking anyone else to. But I can accept that I have several unfair advantages in this society, and that no matter how hard I try, I won’t be able to feel the difference between myself and others because I’ve never lived a life other than my own. My chance for proactivity stems from empathy and humility––I can listen to and learn from others, hear their stories, recognize the ways their lives don’t line up with mine. I can stay socially and politically informed and use my first vote to support a candidate who sees these differences, too, and wants to make sure that the voice of the “other” is heard. I can’t apologize for the millions before me who made things this way, but I can recognize the problem and amplify the voices of those who are working towards the solution.
I gained my clarity through acceptance. Dig your head out of the sand, and you’ll see it too.