Tiffany B. Brown

On privilege

Or the black bartender who said to me: “A black American and a white American … you all are the same to me.”

It was another awkward compliment, but from his viewpoint, he equates the lifestyles of black Americans with white people, both in America and in South Africa.

I suppose in a way that’s a good thing, because it indicates that the perception of American life includes widespread equality.

The problem, though, is that it implies privilege. Am I blessed? Yes. Hard-working? Absolutely. Privileged? Never.

That quote is from ESPN columnist Jemele Hill’s essay on being a black American in South Africa.

Oh Jemele, you have fallen into Blackness Trumps Everything trap. But you know what? I’ve been there too.

It’s a awkward thing to realize that you, despite being a minority, have privilege that you trade on, consciously or not. As black Americans, we’re all about The Struggle. Comtemporary blackness is defined by it.

The Struggle is this idea that you are always oppressed, that race trumps all, and that black people have to stick together to get ahead — collectivism, unity, self-determination, and the other principles of Kwanzaa.

Yet if you know anything about intersectionality, you know that lacking privilege in one area doesn’t mean you’re not privileged in another.

And, girl, this is the trap you have walked into.

You are a college-educated journalist who writes for a major media outlet — one that could afford to fly you to another continent. You are cisgendered. If you are heterosexual, add that to the list. Your college education puts you at the 91st percentile of American society. I’d guess your income hovers around the US$50,000 mark, making you squarely upper-middle income. You have a solidly middle-class occupation. So yes, you are privileged in both an American context and a global one.

I understand the impulse to compare Jim Crow America, busing, and our return to de facto segregation to South Africa during and after apartheid. I understand the desire to forge a bond between yourself and “our people” on the continent. I even understand the tendency for middle-and-upper-middle class blacks — especially those who moved into the middle-class, rather than those who started off in it — to feel guilt, or unease about having “made it” relative to those who are still trying to.

But to deny your privilege ignores the ways in which you are part of a system that is predicated on structures which not only reserve global mobility to a privileged few, but which also reserve the right to represent and interpret what is seen and experienced to those same few, to use Ana Paula da Silva’s words.

In fact, I will point you to da Silva’s words because her essay Black tourism in Brazil does a far better job than I can of explaining international blackness and privilege.

Meanwhile, I will simply ask that you broaden your own ideas of what black is and is not.

Also see: When “American” is not enough

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