From a very early age, it was instilled in me that “girls can do anything”. I am fortunate to be the daughter of two very successful psychologists and the stepdaughter of a very successful teacher and they have always made sure that I have felt empowered as a woman. We had conversations in our house about not letting other’s thoughts and opinions tell you what you can and cannot do. They told me that while some will say there should limits on the roles women should play in the home and in work that is not how we believed and that I should never place any boundaries on myself.
Being a woman has always been a very salient part of my identity. I was the kid who was told by her band director that the boys carry the risers and the girls get the music stand, so I would grab a riser just to spite him. I knew then and now that he did not make those assignments to be malicious, it was just what he had always done; however, I wanted to make a statement that my gender would not prevent me from doing anything.
What I have not always connected with are the other parts of my identity. I knew I was white and heterosexual and able bodied, but never felt like those attributes really affected who I was or how I viewed the world. When discussions about discrimination and accessibility took place I immediately took up the “I am woman hear me roar” identity. I listened to other perspectives and believed I was an ally in many ways, but looking back now I also believe I hid behind my one subordinate identity and refused to full acknowledge and engage my dominate identities.
I do not think I am unique in this behavior. It’s hard to admit, acknowledge and own the fact that you have privilege. Is it because we feel guilty? Is it because we do not want to be seen as part of the problem? Is it because we want to feel like we are part of group? Yes, Yes, Yes. Acknowledging to yourself that you have privilege is hard enough and then to try and admit it to other people is sometimes impossible, but it has to be done. It is so easy to hide behind our few subordinate identities and simply forget that we also have dominate identities that we are carry with us all the time.
I’ve thought about how I became aware of my behavior and it has been a long time in the making, starting in college when a dear friend shared with me that he was gay. It was so hard for him to come out that he ended up telling me while he was driving as to not have to look me in the eye. I do not believe that he thought I would be upset or mad; it was just hard for him to share this aspect of his identity that he felt he had to keep hidden for such a long time. I realized I never really had to think about my sexual orientation part of my identity because it would always be assumed that I was straight.
As I have worked in student affairs for the last fifteen years, I have had the pleasure of working with a diverse group of students and the more I hear about their individual stories the more I have had to face my own privilege. For the students who are first generation college students, I have had to own the fact that I was third generation college educated and never had the discussion about if I would go to college, but rather where I would go. For the students of color that I have worked with, especially in the last six years in Multicultural Services, I have had to face my own privilege of being white as they shared their stories about acts of bias they faced on a regular basis.
Two years ago I had the privilege of attending the Social Justice Training Institute and one of our first activities was to go through a list of 20 attributes and check if we fell in the dominate or subordinate group. I went through the list and 19 check marks fell on the dominate side of the page. I stared at the list for a minute and went back to make sure I couldn’t switch my answers because it just seemed wrong to have so many check marks on that side of the paper. We were then asked to find a partner to share our list with and a wonderful young professional grabbed my hand and said let’s be partners. She was an African American woman who had been working in student affairs for a few years and we would end up meeting several times throughout the conference to debrief our activities. When she looked at my list she just started laughing and so did I. She kept laughing and said “Jennifer!” I told her I know, but this is who I am. It was probably in that moment that I fully accepted the fact that I did not ask for any of the privilege that I have, but I do have it and what’s important now is what I do with that privilege. It was always so easy to hide behind that one, literally, subordinate identity, but when I did that I was only using 1/20 of my perspective.
I won’t lie and tell you that I have it all figured out, but I am a whole lot more aware of all of my identities and how they affect decisions I make and ways I interact with other. I am more intentional about making sure I seek out diverse perspectives to balance out my own. I am still passionate about making sure that women’s voices are heard, but I also try to see that the women’s voice encompasses more than just my perspective. Now as the mother to an amazing daughter and son, I have the opportunity to have the same kinds of conversations my parents had with me growing up, but to make sure that the conversation has evolved to talking about their whole selves so that they will hopefully always see things through their full lens.
Jennifer Ford is the Director of Multicultural Services at Texas A&M University.