What does it mean, to be in pain while aware of others in terrible pain?
What does it mean, to be suffering while aware of being privileged?
I am a white woman, and white privilege has been on my mind lately. I’m writing this during the times of the Black Lives Matter movement, and I’ve been drawn out of my introspection more than usual by it.
Because of who I am, I’m thinking a lot about how my white privilege impacts my experience of living with mental illness and addiction.
Other things being equal, I get better care as a white person. It’s undeniable. I’m viewed with less suspicion; I’m more likely to get attention in an ER. Doctors are more likely to listen to me and be responsive to my requests. I’m more likely, in general, to be believed.
The differences between the care I receive and the care a Black person in my place receives can be a matter of life and death.
So–white privilege. No matter how much I am suffering, I remain privileged.
The truth is, I used to be one of those people who cringed when requested to “check my privilege.” I thought acknowledging my white privilege meant I had to feel guilty all of the time. I thought it meant that I had to feel especially guilty when I was in pain or not functioning well. I thought it meant I was supposed to DO something, something I had no idea how to do, or dismiss myself as unworthy to live in an enlightened society.
I’m grateful that it feels different for me now; that I can make an effort to be conscious of my privilege without feeling as defensive or guilt-ridden as I used to feel.
To get to this place, I had to learn something:
It is possible to be privileged in one way and be without privilege in others.
I’m allowed to struggle with mental illness. I’m allowed to be aware of the ways I experience sexism. I’m allowed to be angry when my daughter’s disability is not treated with respect. I’m even allowed to think growing up poor really sucked.
Being aware of my white privilege doesn’t mean I have given up the right to take joy in my life or care for my injuries. It doesn’t mean I squash my pain with lectures. It just means I walk around with my eyes and consciousness more open.
So it’s a little easier, now, for me to turn my mind to my brothers and sisters who are impacted by racism in their quest to get help. Who aren’t listened to. Who are tossed in jail when they may really need to be in a hospital instead. Who are more likely to be unable to afford their meds, even if they do manage to get a prescription. Who are more likely to be written off as lazy, assumed to be on drugs, or accused of trying to work the system in some way.
It’s a little easier for me to get in touch with my desire to help, and think about how I might be able to do that in some tiny way. The thoughts don’t get very far when I feel as ill as I do lately, but I’m trying.
Last week I wrote to someone who’s been writing really eloquently about what’s going on with racism and police violence. I told him his writing had been helping and educating me, and I shared something of mine with him. It was a small act, but it was a step forward for me.