People from underrepresented or marginalized groups are often discussed from an oppression standpoint. That is, how much the group suffers and how much more difficult their lives are due to being different than the majority. I agree, of course; particularly as bullying is not just about gay teens or fat girls. There are many ways we all don’t fit nicely into the box created by decades of sameness and expectations. And there’s finally more attention to how being different leads to struggle due to social boxes people are trying to fit into. As an activist and diversity trainer, I teach about all of the injustices, systemic oppression, difficulties going against the majority. However, I want to share some of my experiences from a different part of my lens: survivor perspective of social stigma. Not just the “it gets better” perspective…and girl, does it! But more from the, let me tell you who I am today and how strong I am BECAUSE I am different.
Quick story, I recall being a young psychologist in the late 90’s and having a young, well-intentioned White male approach me after a talk on Latino families and say “ma’am, you are the smartest Hispanic I’ve ever met.” Yes, indeedy he did. And he meant it, with good intention. And I believed him, especially given where he came from in Texas. Intention is a powerful force; yet, it does not condone non-examination of what is happening in a certain interaction or about your power in the world according to your gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. All of those experiences of hurt, hardship, rejection, fear, sadness and disappointment that people who are different experience can lead to strength, perspective, resilience, hope, and pride. Once you can peel off and work through the name calling and internalizing of those negative attributes ascribed to one’s minority group, then you can really find who you are and why you are so great the way you are. Part of the process of growing up is figuring out who we are anyway, right? It’s hard even when you don’t belong to an oppressed group! Developing self-esteem, using your big girl/boy voice, learning to be yourself is all hard! Letting go of “what people think” is a challenge in and of itself, hopefully to be won by age 30 and attain greater freedom. Being authentic, whatever that means to you, is the true personal road to freedom. So for those who are a little different, learning to deal with the eye rolls, the fear in others’ eyes due to the color of your skin, the ignoring from others…all of that personal stress, that is what makes you stronger!
#1 - Greater empathy for others
Research is now showing that there is a greater sense of appreciation for others and their struggles when one has to struggle earlier in life. Being different leads to a larger amount of self-introspection earlier in life, thus more self-reflection. The more privilege, or majority statuses, we have in life, the less we have to look at ourselves. If you think about what we examine as a culture in studies (women’s studies, racial studies, queer theory), we have examined the minority. Where is the examination of the majority? What is not being examined in these courses? Well, the answer would be heterosexual White males. Now, don’t get me wrong. This is not a slight on straight White guys. I know many wonderful and beautiful White men who do examine themselves and are open to exploring how to use their privilege. We just need more of them to do so. I also genuinely 100% believe we ALL have SOME PRIVILEGE and need to use it toward the collective, common good. It is hard to do privilege work and develop empathy for others. It takes vulnerability. But it’s worth it. Privilege work is difficult. Hard but good. Just like therapy. The reason it is so hard is that you have to look at yourself and potentially stop complaining. Gratitude is a beautiful practice. If you don’t struggle with money, you don’t really know what it’s like to not have any. If you don’t struggle with size, then you don’t know what it’s like to be scared as all get out that the seats in the auditorium won’t fit your ass. If you have white or light skin, you don’t know what it’s like to not be seen for who you are on a regular basis. If you fit into the gender box, that is a ‘girl who acts like a girl, a boy who acts like a boy,’ then you don’t have to think about how hard it is to deal with peoples’ stares and comments. That’s what unearned privilege is about.
# 2 - Greater inner strength
If people who are different can make it through the really tough times, then it does get better as Mr. Dan Savage led us to see. Having the experience of making it through the tough times and social stigma strengthens you from the inside out. You feel the progress of being more of who you are and less of what ‘they’ want you to be. Being able to look back at your life and experiences, regardless of age, and see when you felt so small and potentially worthless due to multiple oppressive identities helps you feel more connected to what you have survived. It makes you feel stronger inside and know you can be a good, creative, productive part of our world. Little by little, that shame can recede and the stronger you can emerge. It’s important to put that chin up and look around for the many role models out there! They get you through, also. I can’t tell you how many young questioning/bisexual women/lesbians have told me in sessions how watching the Ellen DeGeneres show gave them hope in a future; and how listening to a professor who discusses their bicultural identity shifts how she feels about herself and her identity; and watching others live their authentic selves, out in the open can create an internal shift to let go of more shame. I can go on and on…
# 3 - Desire to be a role model
WE NEED YOU!! Our youth need role models who have made it through some tough times and are there to say that they, too can make it. It seems that the experience of feeling different and marginalized can also motivate you to want to make that difference for someone else in the future. For some people, that may be through their work. For others, it may be as a parent someday. Either way, being different leads us to think about how to give back. How to help the others who are also going through life trying to figure out who they are and what they want to do with their time here. Hopefully this broadens your thinking about feeling sorry for someone because they are different and they struggle. That sense of pity DOES. NOT. FEEL. GOOD. Instead, let’s move toward seeing all of the differences as a natural variance of life - all ways to see the world through different lenses and perspectives. So if I could see that young man again that told me I was the smartest Hispanic he ever met, I would say “thanks, dude.” That helped me look at my life and what others see in a whole new light. I might also pull him aside and have a little talk about privilege and his social lens.