By Perin Romano
It’s hard to understand privilege when it’s all you have ever known. I grew up in a west-side suburb of Cleveland. With a 95% white population and my deposit down at the Catholic school on my street, my life and my understanding of my identity could have been drastically different. I can almost guarantee that the little bubble I live in would never have been popped if it weren’t for my parents’ desire to give me the best education they could find. And while I was taught to understand that my privilege is something that I have to recognize, accept, and grow from, I am just now beginning to understand why exactly that privilege exists.
I grew up hearing stories about the nasty insults my Italian ancestors were bombarded with when they made their move to Rome, New York from Calabria, Italy. I listened to my Polish grandpa discuss how he was turned away from a job because of his origins. I have heard every hardship that used to plague European immigrants, yet I heard them from my spot at a grandiose dinner table dining by candlelight. I have researched family records from my queen bed on my new Apple MacBook Pro, and the sign from my great grandfather’s Italian grocery store now hangs in my family room in my lakefront home. The hardships that I have learned about are a part of my family history, and therefore they are relevant, important, and not to be overlooked, but the fact of the matter is that I never experienced any of them. I was born privileged in that way. I have the privilege of growing up in a stable household with my married parents, an education at an elite private school, and a car to drive me there. I have the privilege of going through my day and bragging about my Italian heritage rather than hiding it for fear of the stereotypes that used to affect my relatives. That privilege is undeniable, and I would probably be condemned if I were to deny that. So why is it so hard to recognize privilege on a larger scale?
The true problem with privilege in the United States is that we refuse to accept that certain characteristics give certain people an advantage over someone who does not share those same characteristics. In the days of my great grandfather, he might not have gotten a job because his last name was Gualtieri, and we can look back on that now and agree on that phenomenon. In a community like the United States, there are bound to be distinct differences between each of us. We can celebrate those differences all we want, but what do we do when those differences are the reason for so many of the hardships that exist in our community? What we first have to recognize is that we are a community. A community is any group of people that live in the same place and share a characteristic, so why do we never hear of our country as a community? The truth is that once we apply that definition, a certain obligation arises to protect our own. We fight for each other as Americans, we laugh with each other as Americans, and we appreciate each other as Americans, yet we don’t. We don’t because as humans we let our walls come up; a knee-jerk reaction. When something is criticized, it takes a lot to listen to that criticism and wonder whether or not it’s warranted. We let the criticism of our country offend us, becoming defensive with each blow, but why not try to make real changes.
Living through a pandemic has introduced a new concept to me, misinformation is an epidemic in itself. Every corner I turn, I recognize a time when I’ve been misinformed whether it be intentional or whether the misinformation happens to just exist because no one’s ever had the guts to question it. Our generation has a habit of complaining. It’s obvious that there is always something wrong, and while our complaints may be warranted, it’s hard to actually attack the problems head-on. In certain instances, there are clear cut methods to do just that. We complain about COVID, so we wear our masks and get vaccinated. We complain about
our sports team being out of shape, so we schedule more conditioning practices. At HB, we are taught from the beginning that we are not only in charge of our own future, but we are in charge of our present. That concept is a weird thing to think about, as so much of our young adult lives are centered around the future. However, we should be learning to focus on who we are as individuals and as communities right now. Presently, you may be reading this wondering how you can make changes as a 16-year-old, unable to vote, but there are things you can do. I don’t mean reposting an infographic or attending a protest, because while that is important, we often skip the first step. The first step is to recognize what it is you may not know and learn to be open to changing your mind. It’s so easy as young adults to listen to our parents at the dinner table and decide to agree with whatever they say, but it makes no real difference. As technologically engaged teens, it’s so easy to read an infographic posted on Instagram and repost it because our friend who probably “identifies” with the same political party as we do, posted it, but that makes no real difference. The truth is, Americans attack the idea of privilege because we feel guilty and we get defensive. Our time in the classroom is a gift and a privilege we as HB students all know we have, so we should use it. We have teachers who tell us to form our own opinions as we exit the classroom and a newspaper just like this one where our own voices are amplified. The method to kickstarting the change we all crave isn’t trying to convince our foes of our own opinions, the method is to convince them to really form theirs. When discussing the concept of privilege, there are even multiple sides to that argument. While white privilege is an obvious and overbearing thing that exists in the US, some argue that recognizing white privilege helps to advance and progress our country’s attitude towards our racist past; there is another argument that recognizing white privilege just further perpetuates the idea that there is a superior white elite. The right answer is not clear and attainable, and while there are 332 billion minds in the boundaries of the United States, a ‘right’ answer will never be determined.
If you take one thing from this article, it should be this. When a ‘right’ answer is undetermined, we try our best to craft it from what we know. Past experiences as a community are what guide us to make choices that will impact our future. So what is our shared community experience? The answer is history. It’s a popular concept that history is a teacher in itself, but it is constantly under fire for “teaching the wrong lesson.” In a country that pledges allegiance to freedom of speech and expression, why is it that we are even debating censoring our youth from their community’s past? As students, we should feel as if our rights are being threatened. Why is it that a curriculum that teaches our country’s history is under fire for being “divisive” when our country is more divided than ever? As students, our weapon is our voices and our dedication to learning. Whether or not you agree with one side or another, I challenge you to use your privilege as an HB student to develop a voice of your own and to fight back against a group that attempts to steal our power from us. In the end, knowledge is power, and recognizing our privilege as educated individuals is recognizing that our most important tool is our mind, and a mind is a weapon we all have the ability to wield.