• Melia Dunn

The Privilege of "Life doesn't give you what you can't handle."


In January, I was invited to guest write a blog post for YWCA Metropolitan Phoenix as part of their New Year, New Me As You Are series. In our discussions about all the New Year resolutions and clichés about visioning (that do have value and worth) often fail to recognize racial and social disparities and assume the experience of positive vibes is universal. From that discussion their blog series was born - a re-examining of these clichés while holding space for the diversity in lived experiences of women and people of color.


To read some of the other entries, check out YWCA Metro Phoenix's Blog page. For mine...keep on reading.


The Privilege of "Life doesn’t give you what you can’t handle."


Most who know me won’t be surprised…. I am an eternal optimist. Sometimes it's a “speak it to the moon or the universe” vibe. Sometimes it's a “manifest the life you want” vibe. And if I get really honest, more often it's a “I’m not seeing the vast privileges that have charted pathways, opened doors and blown barriers out of my way” vibe. Ugh - my social privilege reveals itself again.


I’m also an aspiring, white anti-racist. And that is what drives me to get really honest and recognize how my world view has been narrowed by dominant U.S. culture. The more I learn, the more I’ve come to see how my use of this optimistic cliché, has unintentionally stung my friends in their times of hardship and harmed the relationship we share.


Using an anti-racism lens to unpack the cliché helps me see this unintended - but very real - impact.


First, Life. Meaning the things that happen to us - our experiences, our relationships, our hopes and fears.


As a white, middle class, college educated, heterosexual, cis-gender woman, dominant U.S. culture taught me to see my life experiences as the norm, as standard, as universal. That is a fabrication! I have not felt the effects of racism. I have not experienced poverty. My degree qualifies me for hundreds of career paths. I am able to use public bathrooms without concern that other users might report me to security. The anti-racism lens draws attention to the laws, institutions and systems that created and perpetuate inequality to this day.


So is it really LIFE that is giving out the hardships we are supposedly capable of handling? Or is it something else?


  • Something like systemic racism creating inequities in education, housing, healthcare, etc?

  • Like patriarchy putting up roadblocks to autonomy?

  • Like a history of norms that were written into law by those who deemed those different as less than?

  • Like early unconscious messages reinforced through incomplete and inaccurate history curricula in schools, unrelenting use of stereotypes in film, music, television, and the pattern of socially segregated communities?


When life’s circumstances are mired with systemic injustice introducing new barriers at every turn… eternal optimism must feel like a slap in the face. “Walk a mile in my shoes, and then let’s talk about how optimistic you’re feeling.” A powerful story to that end. Not to mention, going for a run. #AhmaudArbery


Second, let’s unpack what we can/can’t handle.


Have you ever heard, “just because we can, doesn’t mean we should?”

In this context, consider “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should have to.”


This summer I was talking with my Rachelle, a Black woman, an educator, and mom of a recent college grad. Her son was getting ready to attend a protest in response to the murder of George Floyd. She shared with me the conversations they had about best practices and staying safe. Talking over Zoom, I watched Rachelle’s often playful demeanor shift - the result of simultaneously holding two conflicting feelings: Pride and Fear.


Pride in the young man he’s become and his conviction to be a voice for change.

Fear in the accompanying risk as Black son leaves her home to protest against the very systems that are killing others who look like him.


She shared, “the fear is real AND I can’t let it overpower the pride. That’s where I want to keep my focus.” I remarked on her strength. She was gracious but also took the opportunity to lovingly “school” me, her well-intended white friend. Rachelle reframed it, “Black mothers don’t have a choice to be strong or not. Our reality is that our son’s are always in danger. What you are naming as strength is merely survival.”


COULD Rachelle handle what “life” (systemic racism within dominant US culture) was giving her?

YES.

But should she have to?

NO.

Should any mother have to handle holding consistent and enduring fear for the lives of their children?

NO. Period.

So is it true... Life doesn’t give you what you can’t handle?

I can’t answer this. But I believe if we accept it as true without question, we ignore the radical differences of life experiences that contribute to so much hardship we are seeing in our country, in our communities.


What I know to be true... Systemic injustice serves up challenges no one should ever have to handle. This truth reminds me to “check my privilege before assuming eternal optimism is the best route of support for others facing tough times.

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