Violating the Privilege Binary
A couple months ago, I opened up about the intersectional oppression I face here at Penn. However, as the semester has progressed, I have meditated on my experiences. I have received sparse yet impactful criticism for my confessions, which I feel prepared to unpack. I have dug deeper into my identity, and I now believe I have more to contribute to intersectional discourse.
Over two weeks after “Intersectionally Oppressed” was published on The Statesman’s website, an anonymous commenter from the University of Pittsburgh exposed a hamartia or two of mine, writing under the pseudonym John Doe:
“I appreciate your words, but you truly are not the picture of oppression. You are a white, middle class male lucky enough to attend an Ivy League college…You may technically belong to a minority…People may not share your viewpoints or reside within your tax bracket, but that doesn’t mean the world is out to get you. Check your privilege.”
Though John, within a single comment, racially profiled me and reduced my minority status to a technicality, I believe I can sift through his prejudice to find an exceedingly pertinent fiber of truth. John, insensitive as he (or she [or ze]) may be, hit the nail on the head. I now know what I must do. I must check my privilege.
You see, we among the oppressed at Penn face a two-edged sword. We can retain our subjugated position with respect to resource scarcity, acquiescing to a state of starved silence, or we can accept Amy Gutmann’s bribes, risking our humanity. That’s right: we students are inundated with bribes every day to keep us complacent, to keep us from taking a strong stance against oppression. After all, when we recline on the riches that are the perks of Penn attendance, how can we make a powerful argument against the oppressors who hand us these very gifts? Essentially, the Trustees paid me off for my token diversity to be a member of their troupe of elite show pets.
And it’s true, I have been a beneficiary of all of this seemingly contradictory privilege even while continuously chafing against the shadowy amalgam of oppressors in this hateful world. For example, Penn gave me, like, two free T-shirts, overpays me at my cush work-study job (they even refused to comply when I demanded to receive 77 cents on the dollar, citing “minimum wage” laws), and provides equal Penn Police protection to me at a time when campus rape culture does not affect me equally. Plus, as a white male, I received two free chocolates from Penn Nursing students on Locust Walk this one time, because I passed their Heart Attack Symptoms Quiz. At the time, I was not even awake enough to feel bad for my participation in the School of Nursing’s redistribution of resources to white males; the SON has been using “diversification” policies as a smoke cover in order to hire more males, after all. But now, with a twinge of guilt, I am ready to acknowledge the heavy influence of privilege on my personal perspective.
Yet John has struck only a chord of truth, for the school has managed to shower me in wealth without alleviating my oppression itself in any way. And for this reason, I need to open a can of worms that can never be resealed. I need to talk about privileged oppression.
Spurred by John’s thread of insight, I have come to realize that privilege and oppression intersect in my life nearly every day I spend at the Ivy League. For example, the Penn Newman Center adjacent to campus has been downright marvelous for a Catholic like me. The ability to surround myself with studious Catholics with bright futures has been beyond privilege.
However, Christians have absolutely no reason to feel safe on campus. It is not a laughing matter when Coptic Christians are slaughtered on Palm Sunday, and the University says nothing.
Furthermore, a twisted double standard pervades the discriminatory culture in which I find myself each day. It seems it is perfectly acceptable to degrade an ethnic group, so long as it is a subset of Caucasians. I have previously written about my Italian-American heritage, but I also derive the Catholic tradition from the sturdy Irish blood on my mother’s side. It is clear that Irish Americans have not been beneficiaries of white privilege, ever since my ancestors arrived at Ellis Island: they were considered off-white; they faced signs reading “Irish Need Not Apply,” and they were quickly labelled as violent drunkards.
If you were on campus for St. Patrick’s Day, then you know that the Irish are still a target of hate for the aristocratic mainland European students who attend the University of Pennsylvania. They refer to a historic saint’s feast day as “St. Paddy’s Day,” expressing no sensitivity for the derogatory term paddy wagon, used last century to nickname police vans since drunken Irish were presumably picked up by them so frequently. It wasn’t okay in the 1930s, and it’s not okay now; besides, the disgusting misappropriation of the color green, which I was forced to witness this March, did nothing but clash with these aristocrats’ freckle-less complexions. Not to mention that pretending to care about a meaningful Catholic holiday just to get plastered is the height of disrespect, running directly counter to St. Patrick’s message. The worst part? The University continues to provide fungible funds to frats and sororities who celebrate using these spiteful, appropriative, and offensive practices.
In light of all of this, John Doe should reconsider the next time that he feels the urge to assume my privilege status based on the color of my skin, claiming I could not be oppressed by virtue of my status as a “white, middle class male.” It seems that he (or she [or ze]) also assumed my gender, which shouldn’t be acceptable in 2017.
Yet I have not given up on exorcising such shallow-mindedness from our campus. It comes as a shock to realize that privilege and oppression are not mutually exclusive, but recognizing the intersections between the two is intuitive and, surely, an easy transition for students of Penn’s caliber.
I recognize my privilege. I admit my oppression. Perhaps UPitt will always be true to its old-fashioned Pennsyltucky roots, but I’m confident that someday Penn will tolerate both facets of my identity, together.
Violating the privilege-oppression binary can be mentally taxing. God knows CAPS will be forever useless, and President Gutmann will never be an ally to non-binaries like myself. All I can do is add St. Paddy’s Day parties to the list of boycotts and open my inbox to all those who confront the emotional burden of navigating privileged oppression every day.