Race, poverty, privilege, oppression, identity … these concepts have been swirling in my head since I participated in a three-part series hosted by SVP called Equity Matters. One homework assignment was to map our personal identity showing areas where we experience either privilege or oppression. (Mine is below.)
Coming together in our final session, we discussed our maps. I had felt really vulnerable completing mine, finding that it brought up some painful childhood memories for me, many of which were connected to growing up poor.
It was difficult to find the words to express my experiences, and it feels very personal to talk about moving into greater privilege as I’ve gotten older. There is the seduction of one narrative I could tell – overcoming obstacles of poverty and neglect to make it on my own. But more and more, I find that story rings hollow when I consider the many privileges I do have that are reflected on my map.
I have come to believe that while racial oppression and poverty are often linked – and create multiple barriers to equity for many people – for me, my race privilege is something I can point to as a huge factor in being upwardly mobile.
Here’s why I say that:
- Although one of my earliest memories is hiding in a closet after my stepdad stumbled home, words not making sense, breaking furniture and blackening my mom’s eye, still, even then, I knew when the cops came I would be safe.
- While I experienced shame that my mom was on welfare and stress over moving in and out of nine different schools in nine years, school became a refuge for me. This was largely because I always felt my elementary teachers welcomed me and expected me to do well in class.
- As a result of my good grades and being recommended for honors classes, my parents — neither of whom had graduated college; my father only completed the 8th grade in Greece — began to assume fairly early on that I would attend college. And although neither parent could help me navigate my college application or testing process, I had friends in my (mostly) white high school who were thinking about colleges and talking about where they wanted to go.
- My high school was one of the few in South King County that offered the PSAT (which I otherwise would not have known about), and we had a drop-in college resource center school where I could browse college catalogues (this was pre-internet) and look at scholarship opportunities. I would be surprised if Seattle Metro schools offered similar resources to their students at that time.
- I clearly remember that first day as a freshman at Stanford and my surprise to see hundreds of parents escorting their kids to college while I pushed away the nagging thought that my mom could never afford a plane ticket to drop me off or visit me, let alone see me graduate. However, I never had anyone tell me that I’m lucky I grew up poor because it made easier for me to get into college.
- While I was shocked to discover that many of my classmates had attended academically rigorous high schools and were far better prepared for college – having already read the entire freshman year curriculum — I had an assigned mentor on campus who looked a lot like me, and who told me I was talented and could make it (and I believed her).
These personal examples are not meant to suggest that kids growing up poor have an easy time getting into and graduating elite universities like Stanford. Rather, it is an opportunity to call out the systemic racial inequities in our society.
The Equity Matters series created a space that helped me better understand what Rinku Sen wrote about in her recent Open Letter to Starbucks: “racial discrimination isn’t just, or even mostly, about what happens among individuals. It is about what happens as a result of systems.”
For example, if I consider that my experience in K12 education and college was unique to my individual talents and relationships with my parents and teachers, I fail to see the entire picture. If, instead, I examine the way the education system privileges white families like mine, then I can identify how certain policies and practices made it far more likely that I would succeed. The reality is that my skin color affected where we lived (and the demographics of that community), which schools I attended (and the resources allocated to those schools), my social circles (including my friends’ access to information about colleges), and how I was treated within these systems (reinforcing that I was “special” and belonged).
I am grateful for the chance to examine my own privilege and confront inequities. It is distressing and unacceptable to me that we have an education system that advantages one race over others. But mere disapproval is not enough to change it. As the Equity Matters series ended, I felt a real loss, and a fear that my anger would fizzle as I returned to life as usual.
What will I do now with a greater awareness and motivation to be an agent for change? For a start, I am:
- Noticing more where my white privilege shows up in my everyday life: on the bus, at the bank, at the airport, etc.
- Consciously listening to diverse viewpoints: I’ve brought up this series to several of my friends and colleagues and it has been really eye opening to hear especially my friends of color share examples of racism in their lives.
- Diversifying my sources for information: I realized that I consume almost exclusively works by white authors, journalists, and other “experts.” I am now seeking out more content created by people of color (the library has been a great resource for me). I have also started to look at the books we read to our son with a similar lens.
- Being more aware of diversity in the work place: noticing whose perspectives are being included especially when decisions are being made, and speaking up about it.
- Starting a dialogue with my husband about our giving and community involvement: discussing whether we can shift more of our support to organizations that are tackling systemic issues (and ideally are led by people of color).
These are beginning steps in what I envision being a sustained journey. It’s nice to know that there are others on the path as well!
Sofia Michelakis has been an SVP Partner since 2013, and was a staff member for seven years. She is currently a Senior Program Officer at Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and works with a team dedicated to the Giving Pledge — an effort to invite the the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.