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How my Gap Year Taught Me About My “Privilege” as a Black Woman

By: MarKeicha Dickens

“Privilege” is a word that is used often in social justice spaces. Now more than ever we are demanding that everyone in society sit down and take a cold hard look at themselves in order to examine what privilege is, whether or not they have any, and how it is used. White privilege, male privilege, privilege as a heterosexual human being, privilege based on social class, religion, attractiveness, etc. the list goes on and on.

This concept is very real. Certain things are afforded to people who fall in these categories simply because of who they are and what they were born into. It’s just the society we live in. Rarely if ever though, do you hear the words “black women” and “privilege” being mentioned in the same sentence.

Some black women, however, do have certain advantages over others, and it is extremely important that we have open discussions about them. I know now more than ever that as 22-year-old college educated, heterosexual, able bodied, Christian black woman I have certain privileges and access to resources that other black women simply don’t have.

I graduated from college on May 9, 2015 with a B.A. in Journalism. I had no job, and honestly I wasn’t even looking that hard to obtain one. I didn’t feel any pressure to hurry and pursue a career immediately. I had every intention of finding work in the communications field, but things just didn’t work out that way. I knew I wasn’t going to have to worry about my bills being paid, a place to stay, food to eat, or ever going without anything that I wanted or needed.

I wasn’t going to have to worry about the things a lot of black twenty somethings have to worry about. My parents having me completely covered has allowed me to take an inadvertent gap year. I didn’t have to work during undergrad unlike many of my black female peers. I had a scholarship, grants, a huge refund check, guaranteed housing on campus, and a car.

Eighteen-year-old me really believed that all those young ladies who had to work part time jobs in undergrad must’ve not worked hard enough during high school. I ignorantly chalked it up to them just not being as accomplished as I was.

They had to tend to messy dressing rooms at Rue 21 to pay for their tuition because they clearly didn’t work hard enough to earn what I earned. They placed themselves in their positions, and no one could tell me otherwise. I worked hard, and I earned my scholarships. They didn’t have any so they clearly didn’t work hard enough.

This issue was completely black and white for me back then with absolutely no gray area. Eighteen-year-old me didn’t understand the concept of privilege. I was foolishly in the mindset that hard work in the classroom always automatically equaled success and rewards outside of the classroom. That is far from the truth.

I’ve been home almost a year and not once have my parents asked or told me to get a job. They may have politely inquired about what I was planning on doing with my life, but nothing to the tune of “you have to get a job to help pay the bills” which is something so many black parents unfortunately have to tell their children.

I didn’t want to work retail. I didn’t want to work fast food. I turned down opportunities that I thought weren’t for me. It’s not that I didn’t want to work, it was that I didn’t want to work just any job, and the fact that I had that choice is privilege in itself.

This past year has obviously allowed me way more free time that I have ever had. Frequent trips to malls and stores in and around my community have really opened my eyes. The more I went shopping with my mother and sister or out to eat at restaurants with my parents, the clearer it became to me that my life is not reality for everyone.

I watched people treat Wal-Mart employees, black women who I attended high school with, with disdain. I watched customers eat meals and not tip their servers, who also happened to be black women I knew from my teenage years. Now, I’m not saying that black women make up the entire retail and food service industries because that is just flat out untrue. What I am saying though is that I noticed more black women around my age and around my mother’s age working these jobs in my community.

I witnessed them being treated in such a disturbing and problematic way that it prompted me to re evaluate the way I treated employees in these industries and open my eyes to just how privileged I am. I worked retail for a couple of months a few summers back, and It was the hardest I’ve ever worked in my entire life. All of my coworkers were black women with the exception of my manager who was a black man and a couple other black guys who worked in our store.

I hated the job, I hated the work, and I hated how awful customers were to us. Being constantly treated like doormats obviously took a toll on my coworkers and caused many of us to frequently lash out at one another. I remember more than anything wanting to remove myself from that toxic environment. “Glad I don’t have to do this for the rest of my life,” and “These people should want better for themselves,” and my favorite “Who would want to do this for the rest of their life?” were my constant thoughts as I didn’t at the time fully recognize that not everyone had a choice.

I got up everyday and went to that job because I wanted money to buy luxury items. They got up everyday and went to that job because they had to keep the lights on. That work that I loathed was the work that those black women did every single day and will continue to do every single day because they have to survive. We worked hard long hours and put up with things you wouldn’t believe for pennies. Many of the women I worked with were full time and they made anywhere from $7.25-$10.00 hourly. They never complained, and it saddens me now that I think about it. That is not a living wage and those women deserve a living wage.

Everyone doesn’t have the opportunity to go to college. There are so many intelligent black women who just don’t have the means or the resources to go to school and get degrees. They have children, bills, car notes, and so much more responsibility than me. These women and so many others like them deserve to make a living wage. Contrary to popular belief it’s not always because of the decisions these employees have made that have placed them in their current situation.

So many different factors go into why they are working these jobs. No one wants to struggle, and no one chooses poverty. We all want to be able to pay our bills, take care of our family, and live comfortably. Ten dollars an hour is just not going to cut it. Pompously suggesting people “go get a degree” as if that is a golden ticket to a career is lazy and insensitive.

Every person, no matter what job they are working, deserves a living wage. As I prepare to return to college to begin my journey as a Student Affairs professional I realize now more than ever how important it is for me to provide not only understanding, but support for everyone, especially black college aged women, because I never know what trials or tribulations they may be facing.

I have a tremendous respect for those working in the retail and fast food industries because I know how hard they work, and I know that they sometimes are not always appreciated for everything that they do. I now tip a little more. I’m a little nicer to the flustered lady who is ringing up my groceries because today just might not be her day.

Everyday I’m learning how to offer kinder words, to lead with empathy, to not be so quick to judge others, to be slow to speak and quick to listen, and to check myself and my own privilege so that I may continue to do the necessary work in order to challenge certain systems in today’s society.

I felt it very important for me to write this article and share my story so I can add to this particular conversation. There are so many different classes and so many different types of black women living and working in America. I believe we can all learn something from one another. It is imperative that we begin participating in more nuanced conversations about our similarities and differences so that we may build an even stronger sisterhood.

I’ll leave you with this.

Support black women who work retail. Support black women who are doctors. Support black women who are sex workers. Support black women who work in warehouses. Support black women in the fast food industry. Support black women who are lawyers, business professionals, accountants, teachers, beauticians, engineers, nail techs, writers, chefs, nurses, administrative assistants, student affairs professionals, actresses, pharmacists, musicians, entrepreneurs etc. Support and love ALL black women.

Period.

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Guest

[…] With Malia Obama’s graduation and announcement that she would defer her enrollment to Harvard and take a gap year, there has been a renewed focus on gap years. There are articles about why everyone should take one, how common they are, and the inherent privilege in being able to just not go to school for a year. […]

Guest
3 months 25 days ago

As a Black American woman I have been fortunate enough to travel and really see how much privilege we have as Black Americans and most P.o.c. in America. I think it’s just something to keep in mind. I really love this acknowledgment of privilege although I believe it’s so important for us and other privileged poc (access to food, shelter, education) to understand this experience privilege extends globally.

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