Every year as a kid, my elementary school would host the International Dinner. Kids and their families were invited to bring a dish unique to their culture and arrive dressed in traditional garb. I’d throw open the doors to the gymnasium, and all I could see were colors. Every color. Bright flags strung from one basketball hoop to the other representing the places we all came from. I’d search immediately for the Armenian one of course. My classmates were dressed in costumes and hanboks and saris and shuka and kilts. There were trays full of steaming food smelling and looking different from the things I ate at home. I’d fill my plate and find a seat dressed in the Armenian dance costume my mom stitched together for me—pennies hanging from my headpiece. I still remember sitting with friends from all over the world coming together in this special moment. We’d eat fried plantains, boregs, sticky rice, croque madame, kimchi, and whatever else we could fit onto our styrofoam plates. Sometimes we’d go up for seconds or even thirds. I was once told that unger means a person you share your table with. I was sure I was surrounded by my ungers. I was sure the world fit perfectly together just like we did, dressed in costume, sharing a meal in a vibrant gymnasium—that’s my privilege talking.
When I got to high school, no one cared about culture or language or foods or traditions. No one worked to draw lines separating us; no one looked for differences, simply because there were so many. My classes were diverse. My sports teams were diverse. Student council was diverse. My closest circle of friends was made up of a Korean, an Indian, a Greek, a Dominican and an Armenian. I was surrounded by difference and culture, and I didn’t see the profoundness. I didn’t think about race. I figured everyone grew up in a place like me—that’s my privilege talking.
I attended a private Irish Catholic college. Most of the student body graduated from religious high schools. They had photos of their first communion hanging in their houses, and their names were Patrick and Megan and Connor. Their parents met at this very same college, and their grandparents before that. If you look any further back in history, the school only admitted boys. I stuck out with my dark hair and dark eyes, against the blonde beauties and fair, freckled faces. But after a month of mispronouncing my name and answering questions like, “Where are you from? But where are you really from?” I became like everyone else. Just a student—that’s my privilege talking.
My first college roommate became my best friend. On move-in day, she shooed my parents out and promised them she would take care of me—and she did. We became inseparable; sharing meals and study tips, secrets and dreams. We made color-coded maps so we wouldn’t get lost on our way to class. She joined the AfroAm club, and I started an Armenian club. I’d attend the fashion show featuring all black designers and clothes stitched with African inspiration. She’d hold signs and chant with me in front of the State House on April 24th. She’s the whitest black person I know. She doesn’t talk like she’s black. She’s black, but not really. Yea, but she’s from Cape Cod. I knew the things people said about her, and she knew them too. I wasn’t sure if it bothered her, and I was afraid to ask—that’s my privilege talking.
A few years later, I had a boyfriend. His parents emigrated from Guatemala to their house in the south side of Providence. They worked hard so he and his older sister could attend college—a familiar story for many of my Armenian friends. He showed me a world I didn’t know much about. His father would speak Spanish to me convinced that I knew more of the language than I was letting on. His mother tried three times to teach me how to make fried plantains, but I could never get it right. Race was on his mind constantly, and he was passionate and committed to sharing his beliefs. We watched Fruitvale Station and Dog Pound and Freedom Writers. He explained to me what the Dream Act would mean for so many people in his community. He tried to describe what it was like being the only Hispanic in his marketing class. He told me many of his friends were targeted by campus security. They were forced to show their school IDs while studying in the library or relaxing in the student lounges as their white counterparts were left alone. I told him I had never seen that happen first hand—that’s my privilege talking.
After I graduated, I got a teaching job in a low income district of New Jersey. On the first day of school, my fourth graders lined up in front of me with backpacks zipped up and eyes wide open. We walked in two lines up the stairs to my classroom—30 students—all either Black or Hispanic. I stood in front of them and thought about race. I wondered if they were thinking about it too. I wanted to know what they thought of me—who they thought I was. After about three months of teaching and learning and loving, one of my little girls came to me after recess. Her intricate braid had come undone. She handed over a small pink clip and turned her back, tight textured curls staring at me. I realized then that I didn’t know how. After doing my own hair for 20 years, after working at a sleepaway camp and setting pigtails for my campers every night for eight weeks, after mindlessly scrolling on Instagram and watching hours of hair tutorials, I realized I didn’t know how to do this little girl’s hair—that’s my privilege talking.
Today, I reexamine these moments and others in my life when I had previously ignored my privilege. I reflect on aggressions I myself have committed, and I thank those who have pointed out those times. I devote myself to accepting that I will never understand some things, but acknowledge that I don’t have to in order to be an ally. I hope for strength as I pledge to stare my own prejudice in the face. I call on my Armenian brothers and sisters to do the same. And I pray my voice does not falter as I speak the names of those lost to race-driven violence even if that voice is my privilege talking.