Fruitvale Station and What Privilege Really Means

I have a really fantastic student that is back and working with me for the summer, trying to finish a project that he started before he left for med school. Yesterday, after weeks of experimental toiling and a small success with one of our manuscripts, we decided to see a movie together. We were then going to head downtown so that I could also meet the person he’s been dating since returning to MRU town. I don’t typically interact socially with my students, but this kid is special to me. He’s one of those folks that you look at and think, “We’re all going to work for him some day…”

We had wanted to see the Kevin Hart movie, but it wasn’t playing. I told him to pick another and he chose Fruitvale Station.  Here’s the trailer, if you haven’t seen it:

Fruitvale Station is the story of Oscar Grant, who was shot by the BART police in Oakland on New Year’s Eve while trying to return home.  Being from The Golden State and still having ties there, I knew about Oscar Grant’s shooting.  Since I was living away from California when it happened in 2009, I experienced the aftermath of Grant’s execution-style shooting (the link takes you to the video of the shooting) more abstractly than my friends who were living in California and reporting the events to me.

Now, more than 12 hours after having seen the movie, my mind is still fucked up by it. I can’t tell you how surreal it was to see this movie in MRU town. My student and I surrounded by an ocean of white hair and pale skin.  I didn’t grow up in a black family in Oakland; I grew up in a Latin family in East Los Angeles, but there are many, many similarities and it was so disconcerting to be watching something that felt like home to me while being surrounded by MRU people. I felt the place on the screen viscerally while they clearly watched it academically. Reliving so many of the affects that used to be part of the daily me. There’s a scene where Oscar’s girlfriend uses the phrase “kick it”.  How many times have I used that phrase (among others) back home…

One of the things that especially struck me was the moment to moment switch in the characters, especially in the men. I remembered this happening so, so many times back home.  One moment loving and sweet. When threatened, instantly hard and ready to fight.  There’s a scene where Oscar Grant is in prison talking to his mother. She’s clearly his baby, sweet and loving. Then he’s threatened and his face changes in an instant. She begs him to calm down.  He changes similarly, for a flash of a second, on the train when new men board. This all made me remember a man I dated back home who could be so gentle when we were alone.  We’d be out at a party though, and he and every new guest would size each other up. That look – Are you going to challenge me? Are we going to fight? Even in April, when I was home after my stepfather’s death, I saw this in my brother.  My baby brother when we were in the house alone, but then we’d go out and he’d be hard. So heavily barrio.

I knew that part of that, at least for the men in my life, was the need to feel powerful and important in some sphere, in the face of a society that treated them like pawns and pushed them through the system.  A system that invests little in them, but always expects criminal behavior. A system that treats them like criminals before they’re old enough to understand. I thought about this a lot watching the scene where Oscar’s family is sitting in the waiting room of the hospital after he’s been shot. He is everything in the world to them, flaws and all, but he is nothing to the people who run system.

In April when I was home, my brother needed to get some documentation from the county coroner to get a hardship waiver for my stepfather’s cremation. My stepfather and brother had nothing, and were only barely not homeless. I couldn’t afford a funeral. My brother said to me, “Isis, they won’t help me. They’re not returning my calls and I tried going down there on the bus,  but they said I had to come back another day. The woman was rude. It’s fucked up” I watched him try to contact the coroner for help by phone for a couple more days, always being put on hold. Always being told the person who could help him wasn’t there. Then, I put on a skirt and blouse, slipped my pale ankles into a pair of conservative heels, and went down to the county office with him myself. We met the same woman he had met previously and he introduced me, “This is my sister, Dr. Isis. She’s handling everything.” I’ll never forget the look of hurt on his face when she said, “Yes, sit down, doctor.  I’ll go get the paperwork for you.” Now, I don’t know if she really could have helped my brother when he went there alone, but I will never forget the look of helpless emasculation on his face when she treated me with such courtesy. She had treated him like he was nothing.

That, my friends, is the essence of privilege.

Why bring all of this to a conversation about privilege? Yesterday mi hermana QueSera sent me a link to a post written by an apparently white blogger about interactions with her minority friends. This blogger writes..

I know that I don’t know what it’s like to have grown up in either a better or a worse environment. But this was the first time I was in a situation where all the people around me believed that I grew up with privilege. Yes, even being surrounded by drunks (my parents), drug addicts (my extended family and neighbors), poor people who shot at each other (my neighbors) and people who fought and constantly threatened divorce every other day (my parents) — to my colleagues — sounds like being privileged. Is it just because I’m white? We were also extremely poor. We were the charity people at my Catholic school. But then again, we did go to Catholic school, not public.

If I were privileged, it was certainly a midlist, or even maybe e-published, privilege. I wonder how much of that belief in my privilege is due to skin color. Even writing about this coffee date makes me feel like a classist or perhaps a racist, despite my well-intentioned liberal politics.

I tried to show them that I was one of them — not some bourgeoise snob who rode to success on the privilege of her youth.

It was painful to watch this person make the same mistake that most white people make when they ponder privilege – they mistake economic status for privilege. Not to say that these things aren’t frequently intertwined, but they’re not the same. Being privileged doesn’t mean that you grew up with money. Being privileged means that, because of what you look like, you don’t ever seriously have to ponder the reality of being shot execution style on a train platform.  Women don’t clutch their purses when you get into the elevator. They don’t call the police when they see you walking down a street and you don’t get arrested when you lose your keys.  They don’t make assumptions about what your family structure must look like.

latinos have too many children

Figure 1: The results of a little experiment I did earlier today.

For me, my privilege is that I can walk my pale ankles into the system’s office and expect that they will help me calmly and courteously.  My darker family members can’t always expect that, even though we were raised the same. I use that privilege every chance I get.

For QueSera, it means:

Que Sera Tweet

Figure 2: QueSera’s tweet.

Her tweet hits the privileged nail on its privileged head. Privilege has nothing to do with what you have, how you were raised, how hard you worked, or how much you’ve achieved. It has nothing to do with the person you are inside and everything to do with the person you are on the outside. Privilege is the inequality that you have left when you take two people and make them equitable in every other way. Recognizing privilege means coming to the realization that certain groups will always be at higher risk simply because of how they look.

Having privilege means that you can leave the theater and choose to never really have to think about it again.