I was contemplating writing about this because often when it is brought up in conversation it’s rare that someone fully agrees with me. I didn’t want to write this in a ‘preachy’ way to make people feel guilty about their privilege so instead I’ll take a different approach. I’ll talk about my personal experience, what I have learned about myself and why I feel as though I was taking up space. So technically most of this is going to be about me, but you should try to relate if you can.
I’ll start by saying that privilege isn’t a bad thing, in fact it’s great and incredibly useful. I think twitter culture has partly caused people to believe privilege is something to be ashamed of, when actually it’s only shameful when you knowingly use your privilege to do a bad thing. This is a very simple way of looking at it though. I also think that a lot of the time we may feel as though by acknowledging our privilege we are devaluing our efforts. Sometimes it makes you feel like you’re not good enough to do something just because you asked for help. This shouldn’t be the case, someone else helping you out benefits you in the end and admitting that doesn’t mean you aren’t great. You are. But that person who put you on is great too.
What does it mean to take up space? Well to me, taking up space means that I chose to take an opportunity that would have benefitted someone less fortunate and less equipped than me. “That might be true Jes but at the end of the day you rightfully earned your place at that summer school” is the response I tend to get. I made sure to mention summer school specifically because this is what the main focus of this post is going to be about and summer schools tend to be made for less equipped and less fortunate students but I digress. Yes, I did rightfully earn my place but it’s also important to note that I got that place because my privilege played a role where someone else’s did not.
I might not necessarily have a billionaire background and know all the right people but that doesn’t mean I’m not privileged. I went to a high achieving school, my peers were driven (well most of them were), I was in an environment where extra-curricular opportunities were made available, when I was at home I had spaces where I could focus, I didn’t need to share a bedroom, the surrounding area of my home is safe, my Dad is an academic and helped me get work experience at his office. I could continue to go on. My point is I’m in an environment where it is natural for me to succeed. I didn’t necessarily consider these things being contributing factors until I started to imagine my life without them.
For many, life does not include these things. There are people living with potential that doesn’t bear fruit. This might not directly be my fault, but let’s say I wanted to apply for a summer school or some kind of useful program. The process tends to be a little like this:
- I find out about the summer school on my sixth forms weekly notice.
- I decide to apply, I come from a BAME background and from my postcode it appears as though I’m impoverished so it’s fairly likely I’m eligible.
- I write a personal statement that is read and edited by every teacher and their mum.
- I get on the summer school/program, but if I don’t one of my classmates most definitely does and it’s likely they went through the same process.
Someone else may have applied totally on their own with no one to help them and end up missing out on this opportunity that is likely to have had a marginally better effect on them than myself. Their application may not have been as good as mine because they were probably too busy dealing with the actual problems it appeared I had. This isn’t to say that the admissions people of such things should accept a sub-par application, but if those of us that could afford to pass up this opportunity took a step back then the majority of people who truly needed the opportunity could take it. Although, this is assuming that less equipped/privileged students are incapable of producing strong applications which is not true.
I’ve often thought to myself when I had attended certain summer schools that a lot of the things I had learned whilst there, I could have learned by myself with some extensive research. Upon realising this I then thought, well I guess in this case I’m not really taking up space because someone else could easily google something if they desperately wanted to learn about it. At face value, this makes a lot of sense. Here’s why it doesn’t: some students have not been in an environment in which they fully know how to utilise the tools that are around them. As much as sixth form taught me my A-Level subjects (to some extent) I learned skills like how to research effectively and my favourite teachers were high-achieving academics who made great role models. Some students cannot relate and that is why they would need a place on that program more than me, because on that program they might learn the skills I already acquired and they might find a role model they never had. Just by taking a step back, as a collective we can allow others to be just as socially mobile as us. It’s also worth nothing that taking a step back doesn’t put you at a disadvantage, especially if you are equipped with the skills you need to create opportunities for yourself.
Perhaps it’s up to admissions officers to make sure that the selection process is more extensive, they could request more information and even conduct interviews. Although, this may not be pragmatic and things like this require time and money. Also, requesting more information may feel invasive to students.
That being said, summer schools and extra-curricular programmes seem like an appropriate time to take a step back if you can afford to. They tend to happen earlier on in life where missing out means slightly less. Later on in life when it comes to internships, careers and work placements things tend to be different. But I’m not there yet, so I’ll get back to you in a few years.
Special thanks to Migena and Eyram for their encouragement and advice when writing this, it is much appreciated 🙂
Privilege is invisible to those who have it – Michael Kimmel