by Britt Julious
I am a black woman who grew up in and outside of the city of Chicago. Although I spent significant amounts of time in the Austin neighborhood in the West Side of the city, my childhood and adolescence was spent in Oak Park. I consider myself the product of the suburbs.
Last week and for the first time in my life, I was accused of being a child of privilege. I was told to write about “how my parents pay for my rent.” This was a shock not because it was an insult, but because the ways in which I thought about privilege were shadowed by my race, sex, and place of origin. Even being able to write here, to find the time and energy to write at all, is representative of a certain level of privilege. But in my mind, when comparing who I am on the surface (a writer with a platform) and who I am through a round and complete picture, the multifaceted reality always trumped what one could see from only bits and pieces of information.
“You know who you are. There is no point in letting this effect who you,” a good friend said to me. But it did.
A criticism about supposed wealth privilege is miniscule in the long line of potential criticisms, but the situation reminds me of a series of conversations I had with a work friend last year. We were discussing the difficulties of gaining respect as young women. My mother and father always said stoicism was important in the face of work and life frustrations, but I am an emotional person like most anyone else. A straight face can only go so far.
“I’m afraid to say anything,” I began. “I always have to watch my words.”
“Yeah, exactly. Like, we’re not just women. And you don’t want them to throw the “angry black woman” thing at you,” she said. Her comment took me aback not just because it was true, but because she was saying it at all. The idea of the “angry black woman” is one that I’ve grappled with since my transition from child to adult. One does not realize it is a thing when they are young, but soon they are confronted with how the stereotype has infiltrated society for decades.
“Well, if you knew what that was like…” I began.
“I do,” she said. “I mean, I’m black too.”
Understanding and acknowledging privilege is important in our discusses regarding race, sexuality, ethnicity, gender, and other areas of our personal lives that are often challenged. Privilege is living in a world where you expect people to explain how their hair “works,” but do not expect the same from others about your own hair. The assumption is that they should know because your hair is the default, is the norm. Your hair is not “different.” It just is and everything else is “other.” Privilege is not having qualms about nail art or makeup or clothing because you will not be considered outrageous or inappropriate. You will just be expressing yourself and yourself as an individual, is valued.
But using privilege as a sole mean of criticism ignores the multifaceted realities of the people we interact with, whether personally or through the wall of a screen. The internet allows us to breach privacy while also only seeing or interacting with a “public” face. Because we have seen and learned so much about the people we interact with online, we assume that we are seeing the complete picture. But one shade of online intimacy only provides so much. What part of the lives we think we know are real? More importantly, are we filling in the gaps based on the few slivers of intimacy that feel honest and critical?
In an essay for The Paris Review about Renata Adler, Anna Weiner wrote: “There is a constant thrum of affected intimacy in cities. We all see and reveal far too much, and then we’re gone. Life does not move along coherent and narrow vectors.” Much like the way we interact with each other in real life, the way we interact with each other online is a series of actions otherwise known as affected intimacy. But this intimacy only says so much about the realities of one’s life and if we rely on this to try and “know” people, we risk stereotyping others.
With my friend, I assumed I knew who she was and what she faced as a woman because she did not appear to be black like me. I read her instantly from what she shared and I filled in the gaps because the few facets of her life that I then knew seemed like enough to draw her fears, hopes, and true self. And with the criticism masked as derision of wealth privilege, I was reduced to just a stereotype. I was a writer living on my parents dime, even if this was and always has been far from the truth. Writing online in the personal essay form allows bits and pieces of one’s everyday to become fodder. But it is only one piece. There is more there.