Unpacking privilege

I’m a cisgender white woman born into an upper middle class family in the USA.

Privilege has been undeservedly bestowed on me and doors have always opened to me.

But I’ve also been given many opportunities to recognise my unearned birthright. I’ve embraced them and challenged myself to find more, because I believe the wider the eyes open, the wiser the woman.

When I was 13 my family moved to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Being a western white woman there was a liability. I dressed conservatively, and followed the rules about only leaving the family compound with male relatives, but when I’d walk in the city, my brother on one side and my father on the other, I could see the judgement in the eyes of the men I passed. I felt like I was less than, an insult as well as a walking provocation.

Local women who didn’t have drivers but needed to get around were confined to the back of city buses. Most there didn’t show their faces, but hid them behind gauzy black veils. We didn’t cover our faces, however I learned from my mother how avoid attention, follow the rules and placate when necessary. She’d grown up in the deep south when they still had Jim Crow laws and good ol’ boy machismo was on display daily.  She told me to keep my eyes pointing down toward the ground.

I ended up at University in the UK and studied politics, philosophy and economics. I specialised for a while on the Middle East, trying to understand what I had observed and what beliefs lay behind local laws and society. Even in Britain, I was still trying hard not to stand out and attract too much attention. I’d learned Americans can offend when we venture overseas, in part because we tend to measure the rest of the world against our standards: material and moral as well as democratic.

After I’d earned my degree, but couldn’t get a work visa to remain in the UK, I returned to the USA and took the only job I could find in the small southern town where my mother was then living. I couldn’t help but stand out there. I was the receptionist for a rhythm and blues and gospel radio station and the only white employee. Wanting to learn the ropes, I started selling airtime. When I visited local businesses, I was shocked to see how quickly smiles would disappear and expressions harden when I announced that not only was I in sales, but also representing an African American station. Even armed with compelling numbers about the spending power of the minority demographic, it was a hard sell in the deep south, even in the 1990s.

I didn’t stay in radio, but moved to television news. Reporting on the streets of southern cities and then eventually in Detroit. I got a close-up look at the lives of families trapped in cycles of poverty. I reported on the psychologically and sometimes physiologically devastating effects of not having consistent quality care, a sense of basic safety and even proper nutrition. I tried to investigate and highlight solutions. Still, I recognised just how far out of reach they often were, acutely aware that every day I was able to drive home in my nice car to my young family, secure in suburbia.

At one point I became my family’s sole earner, financially supporting my two boys and my husband as he returned to graduate school for retraining. I was then working for a news director who demanded, although not in writing, that all women reporters wear high heels, even in the field. The cops would laugh at us as we teetered, trying to keep up with our photographers, when we arrived at crime scenes or political “gang bangs” as they called them. I strapped on the heels, but drew the line when they suggested I wear figure-hugging animal print dresses or plunging necklines.

I was often called on, when I was a tv news anchor, to balance my male co-anchors on set. Some were so full of bluster and bravado they could “rub an audience the wrong way”. Higher-ups wanted me to soften them. I would say yes, but instead turn up the volume on my own voice and body language. Though not too much. When audiences sense the tension, they tend to blame the woman. It was a fine art: claiming my physical space on the anchor desk and verbally sparring with my louder, bigger on-air partner, while keeping my body language open and warm toward the audience by shooting smiles or rolling my eyes exaggeratedly in their direction.

I left tv news behind when I moved to New Zealand, and started a business to help people recognise and highlight their own unique value in this world. I’ve helped professional women passed over for promotions and mothers left behind by their partners; solo parents trying to get off of the benefit as well as politicians trying to create positive change. I’ve also helped migrants looking for a chance to make a new start in and contribute to New Zealand. I’m actively trying to share what I’ve learned and give back a little of the “leg up” that I’ve been given.

Interestingly, now as an over-50 cisgender white woman not raised in New Zealand, I’m also finding that doors don’t open as often. It’s a new challenge, a new opportunity to learn. And an interesting dichotomy: while my wisdom grows, my relevance appears to diminish.

My young family is now grown. Both of my boys are now six feet tall and my day-to-day role as “mother” is coming to and end. I hope that I’ve given them perspective. They’ve seen my husband and me support each personally and professionally. They’ve learned from us both how not to use their male power carelessly. I’ve tried to open their eyes to the privilege they were born into, in hopes they’ll figure out how to use it responsibly.

I know that I’m, at times, still guilty of taking my privilege for granted. Deeply embedded in human nature, it can be an easy thing to do. But as I so often explain when I’m speaking or coaching, the key to almost every challenge that we fallible human beings face is to override how we act instinctively.  We can rise above our default settings, if we choose to. One imperfect step after another.

Hello KSPW