They also told us not to drink the water.
There was another girl named Sarah (my same age and one of my forced church friends) who was blonder than me, richer than me, cooler than me.* Her family regularly did such volunteer work. I remember watching her interact with the kids, letting them touch her hair. She looked like a Barbie doll being played with. I also remember saying no a lot. I felt uncomfortable and out of place; I wanted to do work, but we were not given work to help with.
This was the first time I had come face-to-face with abject poverty. I did not know what to make of it. I did not understand what made those kids different from me. I did not understand what made this place different from the place that I came from. And I did not understand why the people that I traveled to Mexico with had to be so arrogant and self-satisfied with their charity and goodness. They lived in luxury and they acted like a day in Mexico erased their privilege.
Of course, this is my interpretation and language looking back 30+ years. At the time, I did not have an understanding of the form and function of privilege. I was not asked by my education and profession to examine my privilege at every moment. I had not developed the white guilt that keeps so many white Americans on the defensive. I only knew that I was uncomfortable with the way that Sarah acted toward the Mexican kids.
These lessons from Mexico have continued to echo throughout my life. Examining my privilege, teaching my students to examine their own, are ongoing processes. Most of my students have pretty hard lives, but of course we all have privilege relative to someone else, and that someone is not always somewhere else.
As I travel back to the place I grew up (and back to Mexico) and reflect upon these childhood experiences, I am also reading Roxane Gay’s book of essays, Bad Feminist. (I love this book!) In “Peculiar Benefits” she writes about her own reflections on privilege, which echo mine: “We tend to believe that accusations of privilege imply we have it easy, which we resent because life is hard for nearly everyone. Of course we resent these accusations.” I worked through the resentment (and guilt) phase as an undergrad, but my entire PhD education was spent navigating what Gay (and many others) refer to as the “Game of Privilege” (or the “Oppression Olympics”).
“Too many people, “she writes, “have become self-appointed privilege police . . . ready to remind people of their privilege whether those people have denied that privilege or not.” This policing is especially prevalent in the online world, Gay notes. In my own experience and observations, this policing keeps people on the attack and on the defense. Attacks often come from insecurity, jealousy, and misplaced frustrations. Individuals are called out and we forget the larger system that makes privilege invisible. Gay argues that “we need to get to a place where we discuss privilege by way of observation and acknowledgement rather than accusation. We need to be able to argue beyond the threat of privilege.” We need to get to this place together.
Don’t get me wrong. It is immensely important to acknowledge our own privilege and not enough of us do this. (And, really, it can be tempting to want to beat that recognition into some arrogant assholes.) My work as a professor of American studies and women’s studies requires me to examine my own privilege and point out the privileges that many of us share. There is always someone with more and someone with less. But Gay’s arguments are helpful here as well: we need to “understand the extent of [our] privilege, the consequences of [our] privilege, and remain aware that people who are different from [us] move through and experience the world in ways [we] might never know anything about.” We do not, she argues, need to apologize for our privilege.
This negotiation can be a fine line. It can also be difficult to understand the ways that “people who are different from [us] move through and experience the world” if we do not have the opportunity to learn about people who are different from us. And, it often takes at least a modicum of privilege to be in situations where we can learn about different people’s experiences. And, of course, having our actions and inquiries policed for privilege can stunt the process. But, respect, humility, and a lack of romanticization can go a long way.
Today I have the privilege to be able to arrange my schedule so that I can travel while still working my full-time+ job. Travel itself is a privilege, as one of my students reminded me when I shared my mid-trip mini-bout of depression with them in an email. I have the privilege to cross the Mexican border relatively easily, and I have a passport to return to the U.S. a few days later. I will be full with as many tortillas and avocadoes as I can eat and I will have the one bottle of Kahlua I am allowed to bring back. I will have spent most of my time in relative comfort, making footprints on a mostly empty beach.
I also have the privilege to work countless hours a week, to never stop working, to work through summers that professors have “off.” (I haven’t taken a “vacation,” let alone more than a few days away from work, in more than seven years.) I have the privilege to be underpaid and to use my hard-earned salary to buy food and supplies for my students when the budget won’t cover it. I am not that much different from most of my colleagues. We do this work, in part, because we have privilege and we have decided to use what little power we have to make a difference in the lives of the people we serve. If we don’t take care of ourselves, we burn out quickly.
If I mired in guilt over my privilege I would not be available for late-night emails and emergency texts from students. I would not be able to serve those who are trying to better understand themselves and the world around them, let alone better understand those whose lives and experiences are different from theirs. I would not be able to create opportunities for my students that they would not otherwise have. I would not be able to draw their attention to the structural inequalities that perpetuate privilege and oppression. I would not be able to equip them with tools to develop critical consciousness and the confidence to fight for what they think is right.
I would not be able to enjoy a few moments of sun and beach, and the privilege to be able to reflect upon my privilege in the middle of my working vacation.
*Side note/background: I grew up in El Cajon, California, which is a short drive to the Mexico border. The only other childhood trip to Mexico that I remember was to a beach house that Sarah’s family owned or rented. There, we were surrounded by Americans enjoying the surf and sand. I got a wicked sunburn. As a teenager I went to Tijuana to drink once. We walked across the border. This was about my extent of my experience with Mexico, at least on the other side of the border. Mexican food was our favorite food. Mexican American girls were my friends, classmates, and teammates. Mexico was a neighbor and we shared people and customs. Still, I could often feel an invisible divide and the inequalities were clearly observable even from naïve/innocent eyes.