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.