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  • Writer's pictureLeena J.

Privilege and Paperclips

Updated: May 30, 2019

Not too long ago Hubs and I attended a local conference on diversity. Or, the lack thereof.

It was very informative and also surprising, with details on strategies real estate agents and brokers once used (with full support from city officials) to make it impossible for minorities to purchase homes in certain areas of Los Angeles. Such tactics were hailed as important measures for preserving the quality of communities.

Though that was decades ago, segregation and racism obviously still exist. What makes it more complicated these days (especially in large, metropolitan areas) is the belief that the opposite is true. It pains me to write this, but even in the proverbial "melting pot" of L.A., and within some of my own circles, I have witnessed and experienced subtle forms of racism.

Because it's not usually blatant here in L.A., I normally don't bring attention to it. If anything, I either smile or laugh it off. But the sting remains.

Though perhaps not intended to be hurtful, seemingly small acts of self-prioritization by white Americans communicate that those in the minority are meant for second place.

And that we should be grateful for it.

I should be happy to wait until the white Americans have gone first, ordered first, started first, got seated or served first, spoke first.

I should be grateful to even be included in the group chat, text chain, invite list.

I should feel blessed to have been noticed or given an opportunity in the project or initiative.

But the conference went beyond disseminating white privilege and racism. It also delved into the social structures that maintain segregation by class. The coordinators had us all play a paperclip game where we each started with 8 paperclips. And after silently answering 50 questions pertaining to our experiences of being included or excluded in various opportunities pertaining to education, work, health, transportation, etc...we each ended up with as much as 48 paperclips or as little as...0.

Those of us who had less than 15 by the end of the exercise were in one group (those who had collected more comprised three other groups) and as small as we were (I only had 8 paperclips at the end) the emotions of our little group seemed to dominate the entire room.

Many of us were outraged, embarrassed, hurt. We felt forlorn, forgotten, dismissed. We were all immigrants or children of immigrants, and we had all worked hard...juggling multiple jobs at some point in our lives...and were all familiar with sacrifice. Most of us had depended on food stamps and took public transportation at one point or another to get to the minimum wage job that put a roof over our heads.

For me, none of those facts were a source of shame. I am proud and grateful to be where I am today, and I know it is largely due to my parents' efforts and decisions regarding my education. But for most of us in that small group, feelings of shame and grief threatened to overwhelm. As one woman tearfully put it, "after all these years...why am I still in this group? Why am I still so far from where I want to be? Haven't I worked enough? Studied enough? Sacrificed enough? Will it ever be my turn to be first?"

And there's the question.

As minorities, we understand. We understand our place is behind you, our white American brethren.

But we contribute to this country, this society, as much as you do, and am willing to fight for it as much as you are. Yet we are quietly and consistently regarded as the tolerated stepchildren not fully embraced or celebrated.

Will we ever deserve to be first alongside you?


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