A Life Defined

Understanding the true definition of “privilege.”

I have lived a privileged life.

Though I have often felt that I was fortunate to grow up in a comfortably middle-class American family, I had never thought of my life as one of privilege. I had always associated that word with “wealthy,” and while my father’s job as a tenured professor at a leading liberal arts school and my mother’s position as a clinical psychologist in private practice meant that my sister and I never went without, wealth was certainly not in our vocabulary. Comfortable, yes. Fortunate, sure. Privileged? I had never really thought that way, not until I read Kevin Redmon’s profile of Janet Mondlane Rodrigues ’12, “Who Am I?”

Janet is a remarkable young woman, not just because of her jaw-dropping personal story (which I won’t spoil here; Kevin tells it far better than I could, anyway), but also because of the way she sees the world—and the way she challenges others to examine the world, and themselves, as well.

Janet has a complex racial background, which has forced her to confront unsettling situations—embraced, loved by many, but never really accepted as one of any community, be it Hispanic, black, or white. This ambiguity compelled her to look both inward and outward, and she became fascinated, obsessed even, with the concept of identity. And she wants you—me—to think about who you are and what this means for you in today’s world. I think Janet would say that I’m privileged; I’d concur.

But what does this mean? Well, at its most basic, it means that I’ve never had to think about my race. I’m “normal,” “average,” or so I’ve been taught to think, according to Wellesley’s Peggy McIntosh. And that is how I’ve seen my life. But is it normal to grow up in a household with two parents with Ph.D.’s? Is it normal to take for granted that you’ll go to college, always assuming—knowing, really—that you’ll go to a “good” school, at that? Is it normal to live a life where discrimination is something that happens to others? Or is it privileged?

My maternal grandfather, an Italian American, officially changed his name from Vincenzo Adamo to Vincent Adams when he was applying to medical school. It was the 1930s, and discrimination against Italians (American hybrids or not) was all too common. My paternal grandfather grew up on a Tennessee dairy farm and was among the first in his family to go away to college. Yet just two generations later, Matthew Vincent Jennings hasn’t had to think about—worry about—such things.

A couple of years ago, I sat in a very nice restaurant at the top of the Prudential Building in Boston, having dinner with Yohanne “Kido” Kidolezi ’05. During the course of several hours, Kido calmly related his inconceivable journey from Tanzania to Norway to rural Vermont to Boston (“The Education of Yohanne Kidolezi,” summer 2006). I remember thinking about how remarkable it was that we were there at all. Or should I say, how remarkable that Kido was there. The odds certainly had been stacked against him. And I remember thinking that I had had it so easy in my life compared to him.

There’s another word for it, as Janet would tell me.

Privileged.—MJ

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  1. Thank you so much for sharing. Very appreciated reflection.

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