The Tiers of Privilege

Minneapolis and St. Paul feel like very different cities from when I moved away 20 years ago. There was a palpable difference between Minneapolis and Albuquerque; in Minneapolis in 1995, my neighbors were white, black and Hmong (thanks to new policies welcoming large numbers of Hmong refugees from Thailand, Laos and Vietnam seeking a better and safer life), and in Albuquerque, the population was largely white, Hispanic and Native American. I felt as if I had moved to a different continent. The way that people interacted is something I can’t easily describe, except that I learned the “manana” (“tomorrow”) concept from my co-workers the hard way, and was told by employers that I would always be valued because I was a Midwesterner and therefore more “uptight and on time.” The population in Phoenix now closely resembles Albuquerque from 1995 – again, the residents are largely white, Hispanic and Native American. Because the southwest didn’t shift in any obvious way, I didn’t expect the Midwest to either.

When I moved back to the Twin Cities, I was not prepared for the greater diversity in the population, but my traveler’s heart is quite excited by it. A lot of the cab drivers I have had for my medical transportation have immigrated from Somalia, some arriving the same year I left Minnesota, telling me stories about how they excitedly called their relatives back home to tell them that powdered ice was falling from the sky (snow), and their relatives always asked the same question: “For free????” There are also now large Hispanic communities settled especially around the cities where living wages might be available. All of these groups are bringing their wonderful musicianship and dancing and food and willingness to endure countless hardships as strangers in a strange land because they know that turning back is not an option.

Why am I talking about all of this anyway? Well, the U.S. has always been a country of  tiered privilege. The caste system does not only live in India, my friends; it’s alive and well, even here in Minneapolis/St. Paul, where we pride ourselves on this appearance of being so tolerant but then have something so stupid/needless/heartbreaking/violating/sickening as the shooting of Philado Castile happen. But it’s not just race that determines where you land in the land of privilege – there’s a lot of “ands” that are the deciding factors.

Let’s start at the top. Your average white dude is the ultimate king of the food chain, born with the silver spoon in the mouth. Guys, you just are. If shitty things happen to you, the system isn’t against you in “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” You might want to feel sorry for yourselves, you might want to stomp and cry and try to convince us that you are being picked on and we should feel sorry for you, but I can’t. I can’t.

We can take it down a notch and look at white men who are physically handicapped by a chronic illness. Men are believed faster/more often than women when it comes to pain. Why? Medical sexism. On the tiers of privilege, white men who are in some way physically deemed “less valuable” by society are on a lower tier than ordinary white men.

I’m pretty sure my place is on the next tier down from that. I’m a white woman.

But wait: knock me down a few more rungs, because I’m a white woman who is also physically disabled. Since I’m a woman and I’m physically disabled, I have absolutely no value whatsoever, a “non-person,” specifically. My cane and paralyzed face make me invisible to nearly everyone (and if you don’t believe me, you should walk through a store or down a sidewalk with oncoming foot traffic with me).

But yet…where do all of our friends and neighbors of color fit in?

My Filipino ex-boyfriend was educated and articulate (except when it came to actually being in a relationship – but that’s another story); his status as a man was relatively high, but as a man of color he ranked lower. Unfortunately he suffered from bipolar disorder, so that could be seen as a detriment, but then again, he was believed – his gender saved him from medical sexism. He always claimed that strangers looked at us distastefully when we were out in public. I think he is valued much more than I am, even though he would deny it.

My most recent Native American boyfriend had a much harder upbringing. He grew up on the largest reservation in the U.S., the Navajo reservation on the New Mexico side. Poverty, crime and mental illness brought him into adulthood. He left the rez to get an education, but for one reason or another, he has clung to the the things that have only brought pain and destruction to his life. Where does he fit into this world?

And then there are the women of color who earn even less than the men, who are physically and sexually assaulted, are obviously valued less when they are forced to remain silent in the company of men or to walk a few steps behind them. Add an “and” to them – a physical disability – and really, how much lower can one go in terms of value as far as society is concerned? I startled a Somalian woman in a waiting area once; I carry cough drops and I noticed she was having a coughing fit, so I offered her one. Her interpreter arrived a few minutes after that and she was called back for her appointment, but she made it a point to tell her interpreter to thank me in English. I did not consider it an insult that she did not know how to say it herself when she was on her own, but since I know how the public at large acts more often than not, I could just imagine that even that simple interaction added stress to her afternoon. Like me, she walked with a cane. I wondered how she was treated by her peers and family.

I am always disappointed when I see/hear someone say, “Why don’t they just ____”? as if we are simple creatures and there’s a one-size-fits-all answer. There isn’t. (That’s why they should stop just conducting medical studies on middle-aged white men if they want real-world results. I mean, hey, we finally figured out that heart attacks are worlds apart between men and women!) The most important thing to understand is that just because things look a certain way from where you’re sitting doesn’t mean that everyone else feels the same way. If you can’t see past yourself, then your world is very small indeed.