Lucky To Be White
I am lucky to be white. Lucky to be straight-ish. Lucky to be Christian. Lucky to be able bodied. Lucky to be middle class. Lucky to be cis-gender. Lucky in lots of other ways.
Lucky isn’t better. Lucky is having an advantage through chance, rather than effort. These aspects about myself give me an advantage in this society that aren’t due to any effort on my part. They are due to an accident of birth, as my grandfather would say. Chance. Luck.
I point this out because I have a journey that has been described as impressive and held up as an example of how people can thrive despite a rough beginning. While it is true that I have worked hard to get where I am, I have also been aided every step of the way by my situation in the world—by luck. These advantages have allowed me to overcome my challenges through hard work but the hard work might not have been sufficient had I been given another set of circumstances.
When I hit puberty I was hit with severe depression. Not teenage angst—life threatening depression. Despite the medical field’s best efforts this depression resulted in my dropping out of high school, moving out of my parent’s house, and using a variety of serious drugs to try to escape my reality. My mental illness was serious for about ten years but the teenage years were by far the most crippling. Aside from the incredible pain of the depression itself, my desperate efforts to feel something other than despair led me to all sorts of dangerous situations. That I came out the other side of that nightmare is still amazing to me, so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking through how it happened.
While I don’t want to dwell on this aspect of my survival for the purposes of this blog, I love myself enough to acknowledge own my own efforts. I fought every day for thousands of days in a row. Even now, more than a decade after the worst of it is over I am constantly vigilant and ready to fight again if my depression comes out of remission. I’m proud of what I accomplished but I am self-aware enough to admit that I might not have won this war if I hadn’t been backed up at every step.
First off, I got the best medical attention available in our city. I had health insurance. My parents were educated enough to maneuver the healthcare system which was even more lacking in mental health services when I was a kid than it is now. They advocated for me with doctors, hospitals, therapists, schools, and the police. I can’t count how many therapist we tried—and my parents were with me at every appointment. Their jobs allowed them the flexibility to take off work to attend to my needs. My family had the resources to send me to a private school. My father moved to a different school system to give me another option. They signed me up for online homeschooling. When I finally gave up on formal schooling and dropped out they hired me tutors for the subjects I was still willing to learn (English and Latin). When I needed to get a job I found one right away and I was well treated. Then I found another and another. There seemed to be no shortage of businesses willing to hire a white suburban dropout. How many black inner city dropouts can say the same? When I interacted with the police there were no arrests, I was just sent home. I was never targeted by law enforcement as a drug dealer despite my illegal drug activities.
As I started to get better I became bored in my minimum wage life with limited professional opportunities. I decided I wanted to go to college and my parents helped me do that. They knew enough to figure out how to sign me up to take the General Education Diploma (GED) for high school, the ACTs, and SATs, and to apply for colleges. They paid my tuition and living expenses. They sent me money my first year so I could focus on getting back in the groove of school without having to work. My mental illness continued in college and my parents helped me figure out how to register with the office of disability services so I wouldn’t be penalized when I was too sick to go to class or needed an extension on work.
Aside from all these things I was given as part of my privilege as a middle class white girl with educated parents, there were a long list of things I didn’t have to deal with that would have made my fight harder. I didn’t have to worry about being profiled by the police. I didn’t have to worry about being beat up for being gay. I didn’t have to worry about my government targeting me because of my religion. I didn’t have to worry about deportation. I didn’t have any physical medical issues. I didn’t have an abusive home. I didn’t struggle with my gender identity. I never worried about from where my next meal was coming.
The American dream, the pull yourself up by your bootstraps notion, the rags to riches stories are all myths that subtly insinuate that those who are not achieving the American dream must not be trying very hard. I never want anyone to point to my story and say, “see, she dropped out of high school, did drugs, moved out of her parent’s house and was still able to build a good life so there’s no reason everyone else can’t.” I had an incredible amount of help along my journey, much of it just the luck of my privilege. If any of those unearned advantages had been absent there is no telling how I would have fared. There are millions of people who worked just as hard as I did but because they didn’t have the help I had were not able to have the kind of success and ease I’ve enjoyed as an adult. My life now is heavily influenced by my place of privilege in society. It’s my responsibility to recognize that and use my good luck to change a system that makes some people more likely to succeed through an accident of birth.
Article by Claire Ryder
VERVE Operative USA & Humanitarian Activist