Privilege is a very uncomfortable topic to address, especially socially. Learning about privilege usually upsets people as they come to realize that their hard work may not have been the only thing to get them in their position in life. By the dictionary, a privilege is a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people. While that certainly sum up the meaning of privilege, it doesn’t tell you what actually is a privilege. That’s because privilege comes in many forms. It may be an obvious, neon-sign-blinking type of privilege, or a more subtle privilege. Today I aim to address the latter part of that.
When I was younger, I was vaguely aware of my family tree. As in, I knew that everyone had to, and so we obviously had to have had one as well. I never thought too much about it, I had my grandparents and some other random family that I never could remember exactly how we were related, but family is family, right? As I grew up, I realized that I knew more of my tree spanning horizontally than I did vertically. Even today, if you asked me where my great-great grandparents originated from, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. And so I decided past spring to give in and just do it. Yep, I gave in to all the ads and commercials and gave Ancestry a try, figuring that it would be more helpful to take advantage of the resources it had to offer.
So I got to work, putting in the information I had already, and going to my parents for things I couldn’t fill. It was nice, I found my maternal grandparents’ information easily, and was able to connect them to me. But that’s when I got stuck. No longer could I move forward (or backward, if that makes more sense). I was stuck, even when using the names my mother gave me. To be honest, there was a few gaps in the information she was able to give me. She skipped one generation past my great-grandparents and gave me the name of my great-great-great grandmother, and she said anything further she couldn’t find. She did refer me to one of the many, many cousins I had, but she acknowledged he had only gotten so far as the middle of the 1800s.
Growing up, and today as well, I sit among classmates who can just as easily recite their whole family lineage as they do the Pythagorean theorem. But I sit there, waiting for the day that I will be able to do the same, and understanding that I may never have that simple privilege. I have one living grandparent left, on my mother’s side, and I know that in theory, he should be able to give me some information. But his ability doesn’t always match his willingness to. I know that if I waited patiently enough, and we sat down and had a heart to heart, perhaps I would be able to get more into my search. But as much as I want to know, it isn’t my history to tell. It’s the history of my forefathers, the people who lived and died many years before I was even a glimpse of a thought. And my grandfather, bless his heart, while I understand his desire to keep himself guarded, he isn’t always one to tell all, even when it is important. “Some things are best left untold,” He told me once as we were driving to go see some family in Louisiana.
Finding the root to anyone’s family is such a tricky process, but being in a family where your ancestors were the slaves who helped build the economy, it becomes that much more difficult to. We may not always understand the horrible history that binds us together, but understanding our past makes it easier to understand our future. I know that this issue doesn’t just plague people like me, but I can only speak on my own experience. Being privilege doesn’t always mean that you have a nice car, a nice house, or even that nice set of gel pens that everyone has been talking about. Privilege will connect us in ways that many don’t think about, and in order to move past this, we must first open up a dialogue and understand that accepting rather than denying is the first step.