This I Believe

Anna - St. Louis, Missouri
Entered on September 25, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: change

“You are totally offending me!”

Her words rang out across the circle of strangers, but were directed at me. I was astounded. I was offending her? How could this be? I was just discussing my life as the assignment directed. And yet, this stranger, who I had never seen before today, was so angry with me.

What offended her about my life? I had led what many Americans would deem a typical life, growing up in the suburbs, attending good public schools, college and then graduate schools. I got a job, got married, bought a house, had children and served on several charitable boards. Even with its ups and downs, my life was wonderful and I was happy. In a word, I was simply “normal.”

“You are totally offending me!”

So, how did I find myself in this room, seemingly offending someone I didn’t even know? I had been accepted into a Master’s of Social Work program and orientation included a diversity awareness workshop. When the topic turned to socioeconomic class, a few of us, through an exercise, identified as upper class. As we processed the exercise, I told how I felt weird having some of the money, as it had been acquired through an inheritance and I had done nothing to earn it, and, sometimes, didn’t even want to be associated with it. And that’s when I was hit with a ton of bricks, “you are totally offending me!” The speaker said I had annoyed her with my story, how I had the nerve to sit there and tell the group that I didn’t want to be associated with my family’s money. Besides the fact that she grew up impoverished and her family had to make choices between food and health care, she was disgusted with my insistence that the group see me as my own person. As an individual.

“You are totally offending me!”

I repeated the conversation with my friends over the next two weeks. “Ignore her,” they said, “this is her problem—it’s not you. Don’t worry, you are totally normal.” They were annoyed that she didn’t give me a chance, that I was one of the nicest people in the world and that, once she knew me, she would see how wrong she had been. But I just couldn’t shake the idea that it was I who was missing something.

That fateful conversation took place three years ago and, since that time, I have learned a lot. I now know about privilege, that invisible force that allows those in power to keep it. I know that being a “good” person who “doesn’t overtly discriminate” isn’t enough, not by a long shot. I also know that really well-intentioned people perpetuate this cycle of invisible power every day, without having any idea that they are doing it. And I know that they would be surprised, mortified and guilt ridden after finding out their part in maintaining oppression, just as I was.

I also know that every day is another day that I can educate privileged people about the invisible effects of power. I don’t teach people what it is like to be poor or black or lesbian or disabled, because I honestly don’t know what that is like. But, I do teach people what it is like to be white and wealthy and heterosexual and able-bodied and minded, and how having that power, which I used to call “normal,” perpetuates oppression. I teach people with privilege how to see it, get past the guilt and make change.

I owe a deep debt to the girl who had the courage to challenge my privilege. She changed my life and taught me how to see the invisible.