Unpacking Privilege

The Unpacking Privilege Series is a Law Weekly feature that will periodically publish the speeches from the Unpacking Privilege Diversity Week event.

Courtney Koelbel '19
Guest Columnist

I’m in the middle of an identity crisis that began in early elementary school. This was the first time I had to take a standardized test and the hardest question on there was “What is your race? Mark one.” I’m half-Asian and half-white. I think that’s pretty obvious, though past experience tells me otherwise, but I still had to choose just one. One half of myself, one parent over the other, Asian or white. I ended up checking the box that said Asian because I thought it was cooler than being white like everyone else. I’ve realized since then that I was right to say I was Asian, not white. Not because it was “cooler”, but because in this country, you are white or “other,” and I’m definitely not white.

As if that wasn’t enough, I’ve also had to layer on the fact that, although my mother is ethnically/racially Chinese, she was born and raised in Brazil, and it shows. She’s never been to China and doesn’t speak a lick of any of the Chinese dialects. In my house growing up, we often ate food that was derived more from Brazilian cuisine than Chinese, and most of the stories of her childhood started with “back in Brazil…” I don’t have any problem with this, of course—I think it’s awesome that she has such an interesting background—but it makes it that much harder to find people to relate to, with whom I can share experiences. I look Asian, and to some extent, I feel Asian, but I also feel more connected to Brazil than to China. When I try to do anything related to Chinese culture, I feel like I am co-opting it, even though it is technically my culture.

I said I was in the middle of an identity crisis, and that’s because all of these thoughts and confusions still pervade my every day life. But that still wasn’t enough, so when I was 22, I decided to figure out that I was bisexual. And by “decided to figure out that I was bisexual,” I mean it took four years of being at a relatively super-liberal and diverse college to erase the 18 years I spent in the extremely heteronormative environment that was Arizona Public Schools. It also means that a little less than two years later, I’m still figuring out what it means to be queer.

Society, especially American society, loves to put people in boxes, but that just doesn’t work for me. I’m not gay and I’m not straight. I often tell people I’m half Chinese, half white, and half Brazilian because it honestly makes more sense to me to be three-halves of a person rather than being two halves that don’t quite make up a whole. Society’s boxes also affect our privilege, and the way we interpret and define privilege. Even among the different movements surrounding feminism, race, queer rights, environmentalism, etc., there are hierarchies of privilege that impact the way those movements function and work toward their goals. It even affects what those goals are.

Even though I am a queer woman of color, I benefit from a ton of privilege, including the fact that I’m here at UVa Law, and to be totally frank, that I’m “yellow” and not brown or black. I know I sometimes have to put aside the more minor, though by no means unimportant, issues that I face to stand up and fight for the greater diversity movement as a whole. Especially at this institution. UVa is trying, but it’s still got a long way to go, especially with the narrative about “unique perspectives” that frequently rears its ugly head.

So often at this school when we talk about diversity fellowships, or what’s really on everyone’s mind right now, the Virginia Plan, we get told that everyone should apply or write an essay because everyone has a “unique perspective.” And I’m here to tell you that’s bull shit. Of course, everyone comes from a different place with unique experiences. No single person has lived the same life as any other person. But that doesn’t mean some have all suffered through the systemic oppression that those of us whose born identities make us “other” have. All of my life experiences, and the life experiences of folks like me are tainted by “otherness” that some homeschooled white boy will never understand. They will never understand how painful it is to look at the student leadership, faculty, and school in general and not see people who look like you, love you like, etc. And that’s a privilege.

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clk5nw@virginia.edu

 

Unpacking Privilege

The Unpacking Privilege Series is a Law Weekly feature that will periodically publish the speeches from the Unpacking Privilege Diversity Week event.

Campbell Haynes '17
Guest Columnist

I want to speak to those in the audience with privilege, and to those with privilege who aren’t in the audience today. If you’re in the audience today, odds are you’re very aware of your own privilege. You acknowledge your privilege and understand how it works. I don’t think recognizing privilege is enough, though. Too often, awareness and acknowledgement of privilege become performative – a way to signal you’re one of the “good people” without doing much else. Instead, I’m hopeful that we can turn awareness and acknowledgement of privilege into advocacy and into action. We can do this in two ways. 

First, we can use our privilege to advocate for equality and challenge inequality. Practically, that involves taking on our friends and family members when necessary. These conversations may be awkward or argumentative. That’s okay. I know I’m not the only person here who probably had a couple challenging conversations like that over Thanksgiving. Educating our friends and family should be on us. We should also use our privilege to advocate for diversity in rooms, offices, and places of power where there are still far too few people of color, women, and LBGTQ folks present. We should also make sure those spaces consider more than just cosmetic diversity. Don’t just ask yourself if your law firm is hiring enough people of color, for instance. Ask yourself if your firm is hiring people of color while still defending institutions, like banks, that have historically harmed communities of color. 

Second, take action confronting privilege in all aspects of your life. You should go beyond attending this event or attending some diversity workshops at your firm – although those things are important. Taking action means considering how privilege affects all aspects of your life. And it means, when necessary, abandoning your privilege. Here, I’m paraphrasing New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, who writes about school segregation. She wrote that true equality requires a surrendering of advantage. An abandonment of privilege. I believe she’s right. We should use our privilege to empower others, but we should also use our privilege to attack privilege. This won’t be easy: historically, from Redemption all the way to the Tea Party and Donald Trump, erosion of privilege, real or perceived, often inspires a backlash. The difficulty of the task, in fact, makes it even more necessary. How you attack privilege will be up to you: it may mean joining the next march for Black Lives Matter or the next women’s march. It may mean being purposeful about how you raise your children and where you send them to school. It may mean calling your congressman and asking if they support the latest pipeline project. What matters, though, is that you do it.  

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wch4xs@virginia.edu

Unpacking Privilege

The Unpacking Privilege Series is a Law Weekly feature that will periodically publish the speeches from the Unpacking Privilege Diversity Week event.

Emily Reeder '17
Guest Columnist

I have struggled with mental illness for most of my life, but was not given a label until I was nine: PTSD and depression. I did not receive effective treatment until my early 20s. The interim decade can only be described as a roller coaster.  I was haunted by thoughts of suicide and, in my late teens, went down a path that can only be described as a steady, downward mission of self-destruction. It’s now been several years since my illness has substantially impacted my life, but the fact of its existence is always in the back of my mind. 

My story is simultaneously diverse from many of my classmates and one of tremendous privilege. As an upper-class white woman, I am keenly aware of how my privilege shaped my experience with mental illness. My privilege provided me access to the opportunity to heal, and my privilege affords me the chance to stay healthy. Even with great health insurance that most people in this country cannot afford, the treatments that saved my life were extremely expensive, and, years later, I need access to medication that is far from cheap. I am rare–and lucky–to have an incredible support system that both financially and emotionally supports me.  I know beyond a doubt that there is no way that I would be at UVa Law, much less succeeding here, without the continued access to medical care that my privilege provides me. To be honest, I’m not even sure I would still be alive. 

The “diversity” of my experience is a fundamental driver in how I perceive others, particularly in terms of my duty as a person of privilege to others that struggle with mental illness. Every time I see a homeless person on the street, I am reminded that conservative estimates put the rate of mental illness among this population at 25 percent. These heartbreaking numbers don’t capture the millions of people trapped in poverty who cannot afford the medical care they desperately need to function. The crisis of mental illness goes beyond affording care–there are people in our own community that are too afraid or ashamed to seek the help that would enable them to unlock their true potential. 

As someone that has “overcome” my past, I don’t even see whether to share my experiences with others as a choice: I MUST use my position of privilege.  Lack of access to treatment and stigmatization of mental illness are two of the greatest problems facing the United States. We cannot even begin to have equality until we face this problem head on. Mental illness is tightly wound with so many issues: generational poverty, drug addiction, crime, and unemployment. Even when recognized, mental illness is only viewed as a legitimate disability among certain populations, often along racial, gender, sexuality, or economic lines. 

Although progress has been made, the dominant narrative of the mentally ill is that we are somehow shameful or dangerous. I don’t think I’m shameful or dangerous: the struggle with my illness is a diversity of experience that has made me driven, passionate, empathetic, and brave. Far from holding me back in law school, I believe my background is one of the reasons I have done so well. It’s on me to make sure that I can lift others up to do the same. It’s on all of us to build a society that makes stories like mine more common. 

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er5zq@virginia.edu

Letter to the Editor: A Gift from Mr. Klaus

If students enjoy the contents of the Klaus Reading Room they should be aware that in 1995 a fund was set up to support the room by Richmond businessman Philip W. Klaus in memory of his brother, Walter Whitlock Klaus. Walter Klaus died in 1936, the year of his graduation from this Law School. The endowment was initially intended to support the purchase of popular books, journals, newspapers and other items that are an alternative to the library’s legal collection. Over the years, the fund has been used to purchase DVDs, CDs, flat screens and comfortable chairs. During the holidays, a very special chair was added to the space. Before his death in 2006, at the age of 92, I had the pleasure of thanking Mr. Klaus for his gift to the Library and letting him know how much it means to the many students who have benefited from his generosity. He seemed pleased that students are guiding decisions on where the funds are spent. There is a suggestion box in the Klaus Reading Room, located adjacent to the Reserve Room on the first floor of the library, and you are invited to submit ideas for movies you would like to see, books you would like to read, and other items that you think the student body might enjoy.

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lawlibref@virginia.edu

Faculty Senate-General Faculty Council Statement on Immigration Executive Order

On February 1, 2017, both bodies representing UVa faculty—the Faculty Senate and the General Faculty Council—published a statement regarding the recent immigration executive order. The joint statement is significant because it was published by both bodies that are responsible for representing UVa Faculty, and because the statement takes a strong stance against the executive order.

The Law Weekly does not officially endorse the statement nor its sentiments through this news article, but the release of the statement is of particular importance to the Law School community, given both the executive order’s effect on the legal world and the number of faculty members involved on each committee. The Faculty Senate is chaired by UVa Law professor Mimi Riley, and Professors George Cohen and Kim Forde-Mazrui are Senators. The General Faculty Council includes law faculty members Sarah Ware (recently elected to become Chair of the Council this year), Ben Doherty, and Mimi Riley (Ex-Officio as Chair of the Faculty Senate).
The statement is available at http://facultysenate.virginia.edu/faculty-senate-general-faculty-council-statement-immigration-executive-order, and has been reprinted below courtesy of that source.

“The President’s recent executive order banning entry to the United States of citizens from seven predominately Muslim countries, as well as refugees from all countries, is a moral outrage. It threatens lives and divides families, including those of students, staff, and faculty of the University of Virginia. It also threatens the basic values of inclusiveness, equality, and respect for human dignity that we stand for as a university in the public trust. Rather than addressing legitimate security and safety concerns in a responsible and measured way, this drastically overbroad policy needlessly harms decent and talented people who have already been strictly vetted and who pose no demonstrable risk. Despite recent court orders staying parts of the order, much of it remains in effect, and it is therefore an active threat to refugees, immigrants, and Muslim-Americans, including those in our community. We condemn it unequivocally.

We condemn it not only as an offense to human decency and the Constitution, but also because it harms our ability to do our jobs. We are scientists and engineers, physicians and lawyers, historians and philosophers, and business innovators and public servants. We come from all corners of the world to this great University to learn and share knowledge. We depend in turn on communities of learning across the world to enrich our own scholarly endeavors. This discriminatory executive order imperils these relationships, even as it threatens our students and shames our nation.

We call on all faculty to contact their legislators and ask them to condemn this executive order and to urge the President to withdraw it.

As faculty we stand with our students and colleagues who might be harmed by this order, and we resolve to defend their rights and safety to the best of our lawful ability.”