Mercy Quaye: Privilege brings guilt, but also responsibility
Millennials of color are often faced with the bittersweet reality that they’re better off than the generations before them. I often contemplate and worry at my own privilege. I’m not rolling in dough by any measure of the imagination, but I am well aware of the little bit of privilege I’ve acquired that has put me ahead of even my parents. Living up to the expectation that comes with that is exhausting. But if we’re intentional about it, a critical self-awareness of our privileges can make us better voters, help reduce our country’s inequities and help combat intergenerational oppression.
Last month I spent each weekend in a different state and the final week in Jamaica — just one example of my privilege. As of late though, I’ve been experiencing some survivors’ guilt for being able to progress toward success when so many of my peers growing up couldn’t. Some couldn't afford college. A lot were severely low-income and had to prioritize work over school at a young age. Most were up against being a first-generation college-goer, a title my mother had already claimed which made the territory easier for me to navigate — and easier for me to eventually out-earn my parents. Because of that, I’m hyper-aware of my civic responsibilities this election season. I plan to leverage my privilege and survivors’ guilt in my vote, and you should too.
I haven’t been through any amount of measurable trauma, but there’s extreme survivors’ guilt that comes from being someone, somewhere you never thought you’d be because your beginnings didn’t guarantee it. That guilt comes from the opportunities I’ve had over the years due to my education, network, and my sheer grit that have afforded me access to places, experiences, and a platform to influence others. But it hasn’t always been this way.
Regardless of where we are, millennials of color always carry the weight of the intergenerational oppression with us — it’s our version of the Invisible Knapsack and it’s helped shape my opinions on policies that impact various communities.
The distant memories of growing up in New Haven have profoundly molded my sense of justice and equality.
My grandparents were poor southerners. My mother was the first to go to college. But in ’95 my family moved from a housing development on Division Street — colloquially referred to as the Blue Dungeon -- to the Westville adjacent West River neighborhood, which had access to better schools and resources. On Division Street, I vividly remember playing with the other project kids on a concrete jungle gym that would scrape your knees and leave unforgiving scars as a keepsake. I remember jumping on discarded mattresses — a ghetto’s trampoline — and buying homemade ice pops through Ms. Alfreda’s cracked screen door. Ms. Alfreda, now 72, is recovering from a recent fall and impact to the head.
I remember starting fifth grade at Troup School on Edgewood Avenue, where I had my first black teacher, Mr. Barnes, who I dreaded seeing every day because I thought his expectations for me were insurmountable. I stayed at Troup until September 11, 2001. Shortly after the second plane crashed into the Twin Towers, I remember one teacher saying, “I hope the smoke carries into Connecticut and schools close tomorrow.” I remember thinking how crass and uncaring the comment was. I transferred to Conte West Hills the very next day where teachers held space for the students to vocalize their feelings; that was my first exposure to social emotional learning and my first look into the juxtaposition between poor schools and wealthy ones.
The first time I shot a gun was around 11 p.m. on a summer night in 2006 on a dark street in Newhallville with a stop sign as a target — I hit it. Even though it was a BB gun, I’m aware of the danger and recklessness I exhibited in that moment. The second time I shot a gun was in 2015 on my in-law’s ranch in Montana with an empty soda can as a target — I hit that, too. Grandpa Charlie likely went hunting with the boys shortly after; they had several deer tags to use before the end of the season and dinner wouldn’t put itself on the table.
Coming back from Jamaica last week where I stayed in a villa on an 100-acre plot of land with a cook and personal driver, I thought about my friends who are undocumented and have to decide whether seeing an ill relative in Brazil is worth risking permanent deportation.
I had humble beginnings, sure, but somewhere along the line that all changed and now I feel incredibly privileged, and incredibly guilty.
But the privileges we have, whether we’ve worked strenuously for them or they were bestowed upon us through silver spoon delivery, are only things to be ashamed of if you’d prefer to hoard access to them instead of voting in ways to ensure others have access too.
With more than 20 candidates vying for the Democratic nomination, and the Republicans scared into silence about whether to oppose or embrace Trump, this election cycle is likely to have irrevocable consequences. Regardless of your party, a little privilege guilt can go a long way. Voting ways to consciously spread the access to the opportunities you’ve had will actually help improve our country’s moral state of emergency.
My family was able to move from the projects for better access to schools. But since everyone can’t relocate for schools, I’m voting for whichever candidate makes high-quality primary and secondary education a priority in every Zip code.
Ms. Alfreda’s ice pops were just one display of her love for community, so in return I firmly believe that she and the more than 72 million enrolled in Medicaid programs deserve access to affordable health care for years to come.
My first black teacher’s high expectations of me had an immeasurable impact on my learning, so I endorse policies for the recruitment and retention of high-performing teachers of color — a systemic problem in Connecticut.
My only responsible exposure to the use of firearms was in Big Sky Country, so I strongly support sensible gun laws that ensure reasonable access to eligible users, and regulations to reduce violent crime in densely populated cities — we must do both.
No undocumented child arrival should be forced to choose between the only country they’ve ever known and never seeing their families again. I’ve never had to consider possible deportation when I visit relatives. So when I vote, I’m looking for a candidate who can ensure no one else will either.
The way I see it, harnessing the guilt you experience from your privilege should motivate you vote in ways to ensure widespread access to those same privileges. And if that brings about any kind of systemic change, it’s one thing I’m happy to be guilty of.
Mercy Quaye is a social change communications consultant and a New Haven native. Her column appears Mondays in Hearst Connecticut Media daily newspapers. Contact her at @Mercy_WriteNow and SubtextWithMercy@gmail.com.