I am a light-skinned Black cisgender woman. I am bisexual and in a seemingly heteronormative relationship. I am also a Muslim convert who grew up as a witness to, but not as a target of, anti-Muslim rhetoric. I am simultaneously experiencing and existing within institutions that are anti-Muslim, anti-queer, sexist, and racist, while also being afforded access to white and wealthy spaces because of my light skin and economic privilege. It is comparable to the way a white person benefits from white supremacy, no matter how woke she is. I, too, benefit from systems of social privilege even if I try my very hardest not to be complicit in them.
Historically, access and opportunity are too often defined by one’s actual or perceived proximity to systems of oppression. The less “far away” you are perceived to be from power, the more access you have to it, a phenomenon best understood using the term privilege to describe the benefits or advantages that certain groups of people are given or denied in social structures. Our current understanding of social privilege is informed by a widely cited 1989 article on white and male privilege by the feminist scholar Peggy McIntosh. “Since race and sex are not the only advantaging systems at work,” McIntosh wrote, “we need to similarly examine the daily experience of having age advantage, or ethnic advantage, or physical ability, or advantage related to nationality, religion, or sexual orientation.”
To put that another way, members of marginalized groups can also benefit from privilege. That includes an activist like myself, and it likely includes you. Privilege is nuanced and complicated that way.
Allow me to contextualize the way privilege has affected my journey in activism.
As a child, when I envisioned activists I’d think of those who protested the Vietnam War. I’d think of Black Panthers like Angela Davis who worked to redistribute wealth to the most vulnerable people in our communities. I’d also think of my parents.
"To put that another way, members of marginalized groups can also benefit from privilege. That includes an activist like myself, and it likely includes you. Privilege is nuanced and complicated that way."
My mother, a fair-skinned Black woman, could easily pass as white if she wanted. In our world of white institutions and beauty standards, people of color who are lighter in skin are viewed as less “threatening” to racist power structures than our darker-hued community members. The novelist and activist Alice Walker defined this “colorism” as prejudice in favor of lighter skin color within and between groups and cultures. In my case, I was the lightest one in my family, other than my mother, and she made it clear that no amount of taunting or sunburning would cancel out the reality that because of my skin color I was viewed as “more acceptable” to white people.
As we would go through public venues like the mall or Disneyland, for example, my also-fair-skinned younger sister and I would be the only ones to receive strangers’ empty remarks of “What a gorgeous child.” With an early understanding of colorism, I would point to my older siblings and say, “They are beautiful, too.” And when my cousins told me mine was “good hair,” unlike my siblings’ “bad hair,” we stopped spending as much time with them—my mom was adamant that we would unlearn these harmful systems and reject colorism even if it was being perpetuated by our own relatives. She taught me that light skin is not a pass for assimilation, but an opportunity for infiltration: We could work to make our community accessible for everyone, not just for the fair-skinned people within it.
Instead of concealing the truth or cementing ourselves in a chamber of guilt for the often unearned opportunities and access that privilege has afforded us, for the benefit of our community we must, as the Black feminist activist Brittany Packnett says, “spend our privilege.”
"She taught me that light skin is not a pass for assimilation, but an opportunity for infiltration: We could work to make our community accessible for everyone, not just for the fair-skinned people within it."
I was also taught from a young age that any progress made by one individual should not be hoarded but instead redistributed to the entire community. The way my parents did this was masterful. My father, a former Black Panther in Los Angeles, went on to attend university and graduate from Harvard Business School. Not eligible to be drafted into the war in Vietnam, he joined the Peace Corps, “digging toilets and vaccinating children” in Kenya, and would later open a residential care center for people with developmental disabilities.
When it opened, the care center was considered radically progressive for incorporating an integrated community model that made people with mental illnesses part of the community instead of locking them up, which was and remains common in many parts of the United States. In those days, before we sat down to Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, my father would take our family to the center’s residential care facility to enjoy some time with our extended family. He made a point of referring to individuals who lived there not as patients but as clients, in part so that we would understand that his business was not a work of charity but a necessary service.
In hindsight, I can see how revolutionary my father’s approach was to mental health. Instead of allowing us to engage in what amounts to opportunistic volunteerism in which people with disabilities are pitied and denied humanity in the pursuit of virtue signaling, he showed us a sustainable model of providing care to a marginalized group of people that the state continues to neglect. I saw how college-educated and economically advantaged people can use their position not to exploit already exploitative systems for their own gain and silo the benefits, but further and sustainably improve the lives of others. Here, privilege was not wasted. It was shared. Redistributed.
Today, I use these lessons and experiences to lift up dark-skinned Black women activists and writers like Mars Sebastian, Clarkisha Kent, Valerie Complex, and Serena Sonoma.
Whether we like it or not we all have some amount of privilege, which informs the way the world treats us and impacts how we move in our communities. It is our duty not to indulge in these institutions at the expense of our families and communities, but to dismantle and disrupt them, to share the wealth.
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