Unpacking Privilege

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

Toccara Nelson '19
Guest Columnist

There are many aspects of my identity that are not privileged and that are considered oppressed in the spectrum of society. I am a queer black woman who is a first-generation college and law student originating from a lower socioeconomic background. There are other aspects of my identity that do incur privilege. I’m not the most religious person, but my affiliation, Christianity, isn’t targeted. I’m not an immigrant, and obviously we are witnessing the have witnessed attacks by our government on immigrants and on those who are practicing Muslims.  

I am in an institution of higher education with the opportunity for upward mobility. I was privileged in the sense that I had parents who were committed to my education, but many people where I come from didn’t have that luxury. Many people became disenchanted and stopped trying. I have a lot of old friends who made it to college, but dropped out, because the systems of support and inclusion at their institutions were inadequate, non-existent, or directly attacked their personhood as diverse students. Now, my love for UVa Law is the reason why I am sharing this, but sadly, a significant number of the same systems of support implemented by this school succumb to those same shortcomings. 

With regard to privilege here at UVa Law, there is a culture of comfort and indifference, and as I see things play out, a reinforcement of the status quo.  

One of the main systems of support promoted here at UVa Law is our own student body. There are a lot of students who have privileged identities within many demographics here, and in a lot of aspects they are comfortable. Whether it is: not having to hear comments that if black people were more friendly about their issues to whites, black people could get a lot more stuff done; people making offensive comments about slavery; people saying homophobic slurs; people justifying sending in the National Guard to places like Chicago or Detroit because people don’t know how to act there; not having to worry about an educational curriculum that only caters to one normative experience and thought pattern; or not having to worry about adjusting to a place where your existence as a person is so minimized, attacked, and misunderstood that the lack of acceptance becomes a significant stressor and distraction, and subsequently affects your studies. That is my experience and the experience that I hear and observe from other diverse students at UVa Law.  

Comfort is a privilege. That comfort leads to a sense of indifference. For many students, I sense that as long as their comfort isn’t disturbed, they are indifferent and apathetic to recognizing that there is an issue of privilege and inequality at UVa Law. That indifference leads to a reinforcement of the status quo.  

I’m pretty sure the issues addressed here have been addressed before. It breaks my heart to see the looks of disenchantment and exhaustion towards UVa Law on the faces of many black students, other students of color, LGBT students, Muslim students, and students from other diverse identities. Many of diverse students have become resigned to the fact that things probably won’t change, and many diverse 1Ls are coming to terms with sitting with a sense of discomfort (at best) for another two and a half years. Most likely these students are going to look back after they graduate and remember the isolation and dismissal they felt from the law school community. This should not and cannot be this way. 

We cannot do an injustice to these black students, students of color, Muslim students, LGBT students, students with disabilities, and other diverse identities by putting the backbreaking burden on us to change this environment. Allies and others, if they are truly allies, need to step up and acknowledge the privilege here at UVa Law, formulate solutions, and execute those solutions to equalize the playing field and begin to peel back some of the issues diverse students are facing here. Ways to combat the system of privilege here include: listening to diverse students and not dismissing them; imploring professors to factor in diversity and begin to create more diverse curriculua while checking their own biases; imploring staff to find additional mechanisms and support systems for diverse students; and encouraging the administration to set forth a steadfast culture of inclusion (not just diversity) and take a firm stance against the ignorance and bigotry put forward by some students here. Students seeking to become allies should do their own research and not depend solely on diverse students to supply their education about social justice. Students need to hold their friends accountable for engaging in ignorant and bigoted actions. Dialogue is nothing without accountability.  

We cannot disrespect the work of students like Charles West and Camille Grant with Diversity Week, the work of organizations like BLSA, Lambda, APALSA, Women of Color, VLW and others, and the faculty, staff, and students committed to changing the environment at UVa Law by failing to simply do something.  Now is the time to disrupt the culture of privilege here at UVa Law. Thank you