Viewing Privilege Through the Lens of My Camera

26 Nov

The day before Thanksgiving this year, my grandfather took me out shopping. He said that for a graduation gift he wanted to get me a new camera, as he could see how much I enjoy photography. Originally, he presented the idea to me in September, but when he realized that the camera he had in mind for me was one I already had, we put the conversation on hold for a period of research. The fact was that I had purchased a $350 camera a few years back, something between a cheap point-and-shoot and a fancier DSLR. When I bought that camera, the idea was that it would give me a chance to practice my photography, and over the next couple of years (and I’m talking like 7-10 years), I would save up my money for something much more expensive and capable of handling my photographic aspirations.

So, my grandfather continued to do research, and by the time we got to the store, he had a completely different camera in mind for me, something much more high-tech. We didn’t walk out with the one he intended, but we walked out with something even better. I left the store with a Sony DSLR equipped with its original lens, a telephoto lens with super-zoom capabilities, and a case. The purchase totaled over $800.

I feel incredibly humbled by the gift that my grandfather gave me. It was generous beyond what I could have ethically asked for. Only in my dreams could I have imagined that I would be holding that camera today. I am so incredibly excited because it really does allow me to entertain my love of photography (and especially photography of birds!). Yet, within this excitement and awe is also a feeling of reluctance, almost guilt. Besides graduating from college (which was the impetus for the gift) and being a loving granddaughter, I did virtually nothing to earn that camera. Especially considering that my plans had been to tuck away money little by little, the reward was going to be not only the camera itself, but the satisfaction of having worked hard for something I really wanted. But instead, the camera was set in my lap, and I am left with a feeling of undeserved privilege.

The receiving of this gift has coincided with my reading a book called White Like Me: Reflections on Race by a Privileged Son by Time Wise. Wise chronicles the experiences in his life where he comes into direct contact with race and how being white has impacted his life. A committed lifelong anti-racist, Wise uses narratives to show how white privilege affects him every day. For those of you who haven’t heard the term “white privilege,” it refers to the process not by which people of color are systematically and institutionally oppressed by racism, but by which whites are systematically and institutionally advantaged or privileged by racism. Effectively, white privilege is the advantage that white people have to assume that whiteness is the norm. Society is constructed through the lens of whiteness, and because of such, whiteness is virtually invisible to whites for its sheer pervasiveness.

I highly recommend this book to everyone, although especially to white people because of the way that Wise is able to show how racism and white privilege have been lifelong actors in his life and in the life of the people he knows. He is able to illustrate how even the most minute experiences in our lives can be so imbued with race. As someone who is committed to anti-racism myself, I find this book incredibly helpful and eye-opening.

So, to connect Wise’s book on white privilege with my new camera, I will bring you to my point. As I was playing with my new camera for the first time, I couldn’t help but wonder how that camera ended up in my hands. I also couldn’t help but to contemplate how that camera was surely more likely to come into my hands than it was of others who perhaps are a person of color or in poverty. Even though I hate the concept of “deserving,” I surely don’t feel like I deserve the camera in any way. My love of photography at this point reaches hobby level. I won’t make a livelihood on it (at least I don’t think I will), and photography is just one of many hobbies I have. Having that camera is nothing more than an added bonus to my life. My vocation does not depend on it. My job does not depend on it. Even my happiness does not depend on it. Yet I have the camera. If privilege is not at play here, then I don’t know what is.

If we look at white privilege alone (and that does not quite touch class privilege, which certainly is at play here, too), I can think of some ways in white privilege touched my experience here. First, the camera was a college graduation gift. The gift was predicated on my having gone to college, an occurrence that is highly impacted by my whiteness. My going to college was largely a result of having parents and grandparents that had gone to college before me (something many students of color can’t say about their families), of my parent’s ability to pay for my schooling, and of the environment in which I grew up– a mostly white high school where going to college was expected and was actively prepped for by my teachers and counselors. My high school, in fact, was saturated with racial disparities, with white students actively pushed towards advanced coursework, and students of color treated as cultural outsiders (as with the Hmong and Latino students) or treated as troublemakers (as with the black students). My family’s history and my high school environment told me that college was for me, and I bet students of color in my community didn’t hear the same message.

Secondly, when my grandfather and I walked into the store, we were warmly greeted, and more importantly, taken seriously. The sales rep spent an hour and a half of undivided attention helping us. He didn’t question our seriousness about purchasing, nor did he question our ability to pay for the camera. He didn’t push us towards a lower end model, or perhaps more seriously, didn’t treat us with mistrust, thinking we were there to steal instead of purchase. Had my grandfather and I been black, things probably would have gone differently. I know that when I worked at a store that sold glasses, black customers were treated differently than white customers. Although I am not proud to say it, we followed black customers (especially if they were young) instead of servicing them, afraid of them stealing, and sometimes I wondered if any given black customer could pay for glasses as expensive as $200-400. And in that environment we aren’t even talking about the bigger ticket item of a camera for $800. As white people, my grandfather and I were welcomed into the space, and our transaction took place with no questions. White privilege was present there.

So as I go out and about with my camera, I think of how privilege has helped put that camera into my hands. I am a very fortunate person, to be sure. I think about how it is a gift I have been given that many others won’t be, and there is nothing that makes me more inherently worthy of receiving that gift. I think on the surface level, I feel guilty, but I know that ultimately, guilt is not what I feel. I feel sadness that such inequalities are present in our system that allows me to live out my dreams and desires, sometimes without much effort on my part at all, while others won’t be afforded the same.

As I take in the world around me with my new-found gadget, I struggle to appreciate graciously the gift that has been given in my life. It is more than material for me– it is a chance to express myself through art, and expression is a necessary part of who I am. So, I am very grateful for the camera. But, I also realize what it meant for me to get that camera. It was more than a gift from my grandfather– so much more impacted that transaction, like the privileges that come because of the color of my skin and the way I am institutionally advantaged by it.

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One Response to “Viewing Privilege Through the Lens of My Camera”

  1. Drew November 26, 2012 at 11:36 PM #

    “I think on the surface level, I feel guilty, but I know that ultimately, guilt is not what I feel. I feel sadness that such inequalities are present in our system that allows me to live out my dreams and desires, sometimes without much effort on my part at all, while others won’t be afforded the same.”

    Thank you for putting words to a feeling that I know too well. A feeling I had trouble properly identifying before now.

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