Internship Week 2: Privilege

Political cartoon depicting the unfair way in which we deny privilege to DREAMers merely because of the actions of their parents.

The week from June 18th to June 22nd marked the second week of my internship.  This summer, one of my main projects will involve developing a list of scholarships that require U.S. citizenship or legal permanent residency and creating a campaign to pressure these organizations to change their requirements.  In some cases, scholarship providers are more than willing to change the requirement once they realize their requirements exclude the more than 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school each year.  In other cases, pushing a scholarship foundation to change their requirements is met with firm resistance, revealing underlying prejudice against undocumented youth.  Citizenship or residency requirements may be in place for any number of reasons.  Applicants may need to submit a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), which requires a social security number, to prove their financial need.  Some foundations may have merely based their requirements off of those of a similar scholarship.   Certain scholarships are sponsored by companies that may seek to later hire scholarship recipients and need people who could legally work for their company.   Regardless of the reasons, now that the Administrative Relief policy is in place, scholarships have no legal reason to exclude undocumented students.  While a formal system for deferred action has yet to be put in place, the fact that undocumented students will be able to obtain work permits and have temporary relief from deportation removes any real need for citizenship or residency requirements on scholarships.  That being said, I anticipate that many scholarships will hold firm in their requirements due to the foundation’s desire to reserve the privilege of receiving the scholarship to those who are citizens.

Beginning the task of finding such scholarships was far more overwhelming than I had originally anticipated.  I sat down at my computer, eager to begin.  Within a few minutes, this eagerness melted into a sobering realization that I had no idea how to even begin.  Google, of course, was not much help, delivering over 157 million results for the search term “scholarship.”  I was naive to think there would be some master list of scholarships floating around the internet where I could easily check scholarship requirements.  No such luck.  Alas, I was forced to create a fake profile on Scholarship websites, such as Zinch and FastWeb, acting as a Hispanic female high school senior.  With few other specifications, I hoped these websites would return some relevant scholarships that could serve as a starting point.   While these scholarship search engines were somewhat helpful, they still produced a list with numerous scholarships that were no longer offered.  I spent days scouring these lists and sifting through complicated scholarship websites in search of their eligibility requirements, only to come up with a meager list.  The search gave me empathy for undocumented students, or any students for that matter, who search spend endless hours on websites in the hopes of finding scholarships (many of which are only around $1,000) to cover for the ever-increasing cost of higher education.

Searching for scholarships also heightened my awareness of the numerous layers of privilege afforded to me, which many others have been denied.  I will admit that I have never had to worry about how to pay for college.  I never filled out a FAFSA.  I never searched for scholarships.  I never took out a loan.  I never participated in a work-study program.    I would be lying if I said I was not conscious of this privilege prior to coming to Tucson, as I have met many students who are on substantial financial aid, who work part-time jobs to pay for their education, who cannot always afford to fly home for Fall Break or Thanksgiving, who make many more sacrifices than I do. The scholarship search (as well as my entire DukeEngage experience) forced me to think about another source of privilege: U.S. citizenship.   Prior to coming to Tucson, the privileges associated with U.S. citizenship were the ones that I took for granted the most.  As a citizen I can vote, work legally, travel freely, apply for federal financial aid, collect social security benefits, obtain a driver’s license, hold public office, among other things that undocumented immigrants cannot.  I had subconsciously accepted all of these privileges without ever thinking of the people in this country without the same basic opportunities as me.

Ultimately, the experiences this summer have led me question such privilege.  To me, privilege is the good fortune of not having to think, to sacrifice, or to compromise.  Take, for example, the privilege of being white (which many white people are often uncomfortable admitting is a source of privilege.  “Fortune” because being white is pure luck – luck that both of my parents happened to be white.  This luck is out of our control and completely removed from any judgements as to who is most “deserving” of such privilege.  “Not having to think” because as a white person,  I do not have to think about the fact that I might not be offered a job simply due to subconscious racism.  I do not have to think that if I wear a hoodie I might look suspicious because of the color of my skin. I can move about in my everyday life without having to recognize or question my white privilege, should I choose to do so.  My white skin affords me the privilege of “not having to sacrifice”  because I do not have to exert myself to overcome systemic and institutional racism.  White privilege involves “not having to compromise” because I never have to work with those in power in order to gain some ounce of power myself.  I already have power.  Minorities, on the other hand, are forced to lobby white Congressmen to pass beneficial legislation that often fails to meet a large majority of their needs.  While the DREAM Act is important (and has yet to be passed), is in some senses a compromise because it only addresses the citizenship needs of young undocumented students.  What about their parents and other family members?  Undocumented immigrants have been forced to compromise their universal need for citizenship, in the hopes that some of the most promising individuals from their community may be afforded that privilege.

The initial way I react to this privilege is to feel guilt.  I, just like undocumented students, had no control over where I was born, the color of my skin, or my parents’ income.  So what makes me deserve my privilege?  Nothing.  Just as nothing makes undocumented immigrants and other oppressed communities deserve to be denied such privilege.  Yes, I have always worked hard in school, but in no way have I earned many of the privileges that have been handed to me.  So I feel guilt.  Guilt that I cannot give some of my privilege to others that have little.  Guilt that I am no more deserving of such privilege than anybody else.  Guilt that I often take my privilege for granted.  Yet I have come to realize that such guilt can be paralyzing and counterproductive.  Paralyzing because by feeling guilty for privilege, we are focusing on the negative, allowing us to feel trapped and defeated.  Counterproductive because our guilt leaves us feeling bad for those who are less fortunate than us, which only serves to reinforce the current system of privilege.  Instead, we can chose to be empowered and progressive, to focus on what we do have control over: what we do with our privilege.  We can pledge to never take it for granted, to never use it to oppress others, to use it to fight against the system.  Guilt should only come into play if we fail to do these things. The best thing we can do is recognize (rather than shy away from) our many layers of privilege, peel them back, and begin to question the systems operating which create and maintain such privilege.  Why do some groups hold privilege while others do not?  How is the cycle of privilege perpetuated?  Can we ever hope to alter the current system of privilege?  As I continue on my DukeEngage experience, I will be grappling with these questions and many more.

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