My oldest Stanford girlfriend is someone I love dearly. She is a thin, blond who speaks 5 languages and is working on getting her PhD. Her family is very privileged. Her dad pulled himself up and has done very well for himself and she enjoyed the trappings of this experience (I am keeping details vague to protect both her and her family). Every time I talk to one of my working class friends, educated or no, they are surprised to hear this, especially because she is politically conservative. We’ve been friends for a long time, and she has been really important to me over the years. There have been times where she said things that were problematic but it’s always been easy to move pass it, and so we do.
The reason we’ve been friends for so long is because she is a good friend. She always checks in with me, supports me unconditionally, is there when I need her, is profoundly loyal. These are the traits I look for in the people I bring into the inner circle of my life. These traits are more important than education, intelligence, or humor by a significant margin. She has shown me over the years that it is entirely possible for me to have cross-cultural relationships. She’s not the only one. This post is for her, but it’s for the other privileged people I have in my life who have done many of the same things she has.
Here are some of the things my friends have done over the years that are particularly exemplary.
1) Listen without judgment
I have friends who grew up relatively sheltered who listen to my life story without a hit of judgment, pity or even amusement. They trust what I tell them, and they empathetically respond with interest and kindness. They show they respect my intelligence by trusting what I say. They also show mad love and respect when they acknowledge that what I’ve been through is difficult and that it indicates strength and intelligence that I not only survived but made it to Stanford. That’s respect.
2) Understand that I have legitimate reasons to be angry, be willing to listen to those reasons
I am a verbal processor. That’s my excuse for why I talk that much. I also see much in the world that needs to change if we are going to be a truly equitable and kind world. The privileged friends I have accept my reasons for anger, assume I am being both honest and fair, listen to it without taking it personally, and don’t try to tell me they understand. They know they don’t understand but that doesn’t stop them from loving me.
3) When I say there is a cultural difference, they believe me and unpack their end of it
This one is hard. Privileged people grow up in a world designed for them that reinforces their world view, so when they encounter someone who has experienced something different it is a complete challenge to everything they’ve seen, heard and experienced in their lives. Its takes a great deal of intelligence and kindness to listen to someone who sees the world differently from you and be able to assess how your existence in their shared world changes their world view and to change their world view from that.
4) Respect my friends and family.
My close privileged friends are not only respectful of me because I went to Stanford and am therefore technically part of their world, but they are also kind and respectful to my family. They are also kind to all working class people they encounter. Because they are decent human beings and this is basic decent human being behavior. They respect that my family has made choices different from them and theirs and they understand that they were under different pressures to do so. They act like good guests on the rare off chance they see my home, meet my parents, or have the pleasure of being brought somewhere I don’t normally bring privileged people.
5) If they are confused, they ask questions and then accept the answer given
I don’t expect people from privilege to get it right every time. They are just discovering the world too, and they might say something stupid, offensive or bigoted. It’s hard to grow up in a world that trained them to do just that and then to not do it at an age when we are all still unpacking the world. My privileged friends get schooled sometimes by me, and usually I don’t code-switch when I do it (I don’t think I should have to code switch in the company of friends) and they might not like it but they understand it and talk it over with me. There are ways to ask that won’t land you into the land of unforgivable bigotry. Best case scenario is that you ask in a way that shows that you think my culture is just as valid as yours. For example: I noticed that you have a different way of dealing with friendships and I was wondering why? If you don’t manage that, there is still a way to come back. Listen to the response you get and assume it is honest and fair and accept it. Ask follow up questions. Apologize if you do say something offensive. Don’t do it again.
I wanted to write this because I complain often, but I’ve seen some really good people in my time, and I don’t think I appreciate them enough. So this is for the crazy-artist coder who always unpacks her culture, for the man in med school who was always patient and kind, for the engineer that never stopped talking things out with me, for the history major who respected the implications of my background, for the fellow teachers and the urban planner who drew on my knowledge to do right by their students and constituents, for the Germans who often had my back in public and thought my culture was beautiful and for the professors that supported my strengths and helped me navigate Stanford. You give me hope.