How I Stopped Seeing Privilege in Black and White
When I moved to Kenya earlier this year, I became white, powerful, and unfathomably wealthy.
My little family of three lives in a five-bedroom home, and we employ a fulltime house helper and driver—all for less than we paid in rent in Silicon Valley. We have every comfort we could possibly want in a country in which 77 percent of the population doesn’t have access to electricity and 37 percent don’t have safe drinking water.
As an Asian American who grew up in an immigrant, lower-middle-class family, this is the most privileged I have ever been. The everyday struggles of the majority of Kenyans—against unemployment, poverty, corruption, extrajudicial police killings, and more—are not struggles that I will likely have to face here. In this warm and polite culture, I am treated with extra respect because of the lightness of my skin and the depth of my wallet.
It feels strange. Despite my discomfort with the idea, I cannot deny the abundance of my resources compared to those around me. When our helper tells me about her longstanding toothache, or when she muses how nice it would be to own a refrigerator, or when I realize my family’s meal costs as much as her rent, my first response is a messy mix of compassion and guilt—followed by overwhelming anxiety about whether I should do something to help.
For several years after college, I worked in the nonprofit sector with other young, idealistic professionals who were passionate about social justice. My colleagues and I used the word privilege almost like an insult. We saw ourselves—people of color who had experienced financial struggle and systemic prejudice—as individuals free of the taint of privilege. We believed that other people, primarily whites or people of affluence, were the ones who had to live with that burden. They had charmed lives and, as a result, were blind to the suffering of others.
In retrospect, I see now that we wanted the benefits of privilege without claiming any of its sociological baggage. To us, privileged meant ignorant and unfairly advantaged—and, by extension, unjust and selfish. We believed we weren’t, and never would be, like those kinds of privileged people, no matter how our life circumstances improved.
In the US, ongoing incidents of unwarranted police brutality and inflammatory political rhetoric in the past couple years have heightened racial tensions and brought the concept of privilege, white privilege in particular, to the fore of public discussion. Each time an unarmed black man gets fatally shot by police, many of us wonder: If he had been of a different ethnic background, would police still have opened fire?
Our questions, grief, and anger at so many unjust deaths are warranted, and they force us to notice the dramatic disparities in our society. But sometimes the ire extends beyond individuals who engage in harmful actions or rhetoric, encompassing everyone who fits a particular demographic. I have read blog posts and social media comments criticizing those with privilege for their ignorance, inaction, and insensitivity—talking points that my younger self would have gladly amplified without a second thought.
Yet the more I have traveled around the world and met people of different backgrounds, I have come to view privilege as a far murkier notion than we tend to admit. It’s not binary, as if the world were neatly divided into those who have privilege and those who don’t.
Scholar and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw calls this intersectionality. Based on her studies of black feminism, “the theory proposes that we should think of each element or trait of a person as inextricably linked with all of the other elements in order to fully understand one's identity.” We are complex beings with varied traits—race, gender, class, nationality, age, culture, geographical context, and more—each of which affects the level of privilege we experience.
For instance, being white in the US affords privilege—which may be all but erased by severe economic hardship or a deeply ingrained culture of violence and mistrust. The sobering revelations about the plight of rural working-class whites in J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis make it clear that not all people with light skin live a charmed life. What does white privilege mean to a population with crushing rates of poverty, drug addiction, and domestic violence?
As an Asian American woman, my ethnicity, gender, and immigrant background may make life more difficult for me, but my economic standing, college degrees, and marital status certainly help. To add to the complexity, our relative privilege changes in each new environment we enter, whether it be the home or workplace, an urban or rural context, or a new culture or country.
The first time I lived overseas, in an industrial city in mainland China, I complained to some Chinese nationals about my homesickness and the stresses of my job. Without sympathy, they responded, “I wish I could travel. I wish I had the chance to work in a different country.” While the Chinese government has eased travel restrictions in recent years, many Chinese nationals still cannot get permission to travel within their own country, let alone outside the country, without being connected to powerful people or putting down several years’ worth of income as collateral.
In China, my privilege came not from being Han Chinese, the ethnicity that makes up 92 percent of the population, but from holding an American passport—a privilege so basic to Americans that we typically don’t even think about it.
In truth, it is possible to be both privileged and not privileged at the same time—and, with very few exceptions, we all sit in this contradictory space. This is not to say that the playing field is level for everyone; some populations face significantly more discrimination, oppression, and barriers to wellbeing than others. But it is both morally fraught and overly simplistic to deny the advantages we each carry. We risk othering people of privilege as much as we may accuse them of othering us. (Sociologist Yiannis Gabriel defines othering as “the process of casting a group… into the role of the ‘other’ and establishing one’s own identity through opposition to and, frequently, vilification of this Other.”)
In the national conversation about privilege, we have fallen into the practice that Jesus warns us against, of pointing to the speck in someone else’s eye without considering what is in our own eye. Some of us, myself included, are quick to tell others about their privilege without taking the same care to examine ourselves. This perspective can lead to a form of blind pride: We may judge others without seeing the full picture of who they are. We may assume that we do not have the prejudices that others do. We may absolve ourselves of playing any role in unjust systems.
One of the most effective strategies for removing those blinders is to look outside our communities and our borders, and to recognize that billions of people around the world have far fewer opportunities and resources than most of us do. Then, with uncomfortably stark clarity, we will see that we are people of privilege too. If you have access to a refrigerator, you're privileged. If you have the option to travel, you’re privileged. If you speak any English, you're privileged. If you can state your opinion or attend your chosen house of worship without fear of imprisonment, you're privileged.
Privilege comes in far more forms than we typically acknowledge. Like power, it is something not to despise but to use well.
Contrary to what I thought as a young social activist, it is not a simple thing to be a well-intentioned person of privilege. It is not obvious how to act righteously when faced with people who are significantly more disadvantaged. While living in Kenya, I have been paralyzed with inaction more often than I’d like to admit. I have frequently not known what to say or do, fearing that I could unintentionally disempower or patronize those around me with my efforts to help.
As I have come to terms with the complex fusion of privileges and disadvantages I carry, fewer and fewer people are others to me. They are instead individuals whose struggles and victories mirror many of my own—and, as a result, I am tugged more toward empathy than condemnation and rejection.
No matter how much affluence or opportunity people have, they are still in need of compassion and kindness. They still need to be approached with grace and gentleness. They need to be encouraged when they try to reach out and readily forgiven when they make mistakes. Anger and accusations, even if justified, will not help someone who is already struggling with guilt, anxiety, and shame.
I am not advocating for anyone to be absolved of the responsibility to understand privilege, or lack thereof. Such discussions—about who has it, what it looks like, how policies and practices could provide greater opportunities for the historically disenfranchised—must continue. But these conversations cannot bring us together, unified in our desire to elevate one another in dignity and love, unless they are infused with an abundance of grace. Grace for those who seem to have more privilege than us, grace for those who seem to have less, and grace for ourselves as we try to accept the messy, complex individuals we are.
None of us will understand and act upon the nuances of what it means to live with privilege correctly all the time. We can start by no longer saying privilege like it’s an accusation or insult. Being privileged is instead an invitation to take responsibility for the plight of our fellow man, to live with more gratitude and humility, and to work together toward building a kingdom of God that encompasses every one of us.