The Privileged Perspective
Illustrated by Catherine Brown
All considered, I don’t think I have struggled very much.
Of course, like everyone, I have faced hardships. But my own particular negative experiences have also accumulated in such a way that they remind me of their opposite. That is to say, having known bad, I can also now better understand good.
I realize that this perspective is quite a privileged one—to be able to view my negatives as learning experiences, which, in turn, helps me learn to brush them off, to not let them define me.
Not everybody can afford that perspective.
Last semester, I read and studied Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, a poetry collection based upon Rankine’s experience as an African-American woman existing in the United States. In the collection, she adopts the rare second person point of view, addressing the reader with the continuous use of “You”, begging the audience to ask the question: to whom is the narrator speaking? The poetry explores all-too-common microaggressions experienced by African-Americans, experiences which may seem entirely microscopic to others but that have a major effect on those who are sliced into by them over and over again. Rankine states that often, she is mistaken with the only other Black woman in her office. In turn, she has learned to believe her co-workers “had a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right” (Rankine 43). The collection presents a plethora of other similarly unfair microaggressions against African-Americans, from Serena Williams being portrayed as angry and infantile for her reactions on the court to the list of “In Memory Of’s provided to all those murdered in acts of police brutality. Rankine shows a list of names which gradually fade into nothingness, as if to claim that there is no point on counting infinitely.
We analyzed Citizen in my poetry class, where the students were primarily White. We would gather to discuss, our fingers drumming upon tabletops, our skin resembling the cold, definitive snow resting outside the window. We talked of microaggressions, some debating that they saw no harm in viewing two Black people in the same office to be similar. We answered study questions regarding both poetics and the issue of race in America.
Class was then dismissed and we went about our days.
This is the important detail about my privileged perspective. It is a pretty significant gift, to be able to understand that my own set-backs serve a greater purpose in my own life. That I can then carry on and see them as resolved. (Martin Luther King Jr., in the face of unspeakable tragedy—the killing of innocent children—did say that “unmerited suffering is redemptive,” but his perspective was a unique one.) My privilege goes beyond my being White, of course, intersecting as well with socio-economic status, physical ability, and other factors. Nevertheless, the issue of race—and not only in America—remains one that I have to consider only momentarily; consider for the purpose of learning and debate, and of a participation grade.
I went out for lunch with one of my friends this summer, who just so happens to be Black. We arrived on the topic of how particular issues can affect particular groups of people. Suddenly, I thought of Rankine. I brought up the poem about her experience of being mistaken with the only other Black woman. My friend’s face lit up in recognition, a certain realization that “this isn’t only me?!”, but then it fell. She claimed this happened to her all the time with the other Black girl she worked with, although they “... look nothing alike. We’re just both Black”.
After lunch, we both went home. I left with my relatively easier capacity to learn from my issues and move on. She left with a long-residing issue seemingly too hardened to mold with her hands alone.
I believe I was provided with an answer as to who Rankine is speaking to when she addresses “You”. As she wrote: “Feel good. Feel better. Move forward. Let it go. [...] Your fingers cover your eyes, press them deep into their sockets - too much commotion, too much for a head remembering to ache. Move on. Let it go. Come on” (Rankine 66).
For some people, certain issues have grown too thick to hold up to the light.