Privilege, a word, a concept, a reality, meaning something different from every mouth it leaves, ears it enters, and computer and phone screens on which it’s written and read. Roxane Gay once called privileges, “peculiar benefits,” in an essay for The Rumpus and later in her NY Times Bestseller Bad Feminist, because the word is poorly received by many due to the inescapable reach of its good and bad content in modern-day media. I won’t be stealing her line, so you’ll have to bear with me as I introduce a type of privilege that we don’t often talk about, but one that has unique effects on people across the globe, spanning identities. I’ll be referring to it as Emotional Privilege.
I think it’s about time that we talk about this kind of privilege. A simple Google search yields posts and articles with the words ‘emotional’ and ‘privilege’ in them, but none that speak specifically about the upcoming topic. Stop for a second and create a safe quiet space for yourself within which you can objectively reflect on your life, if it’s possible for you. Ask yourself the following questions: Did my parental figures or guardians support me when you was young? Was I told that I was special? Was I told that I could do anything I wanted to do? Were my dreams and aspirations taken seriously or were they brushed off as nonsense?
I won’t ask every question I could ask in this area, because the main point of this lies dominantly within the first question, whether you received support as a kid. It might seem like a minor detail in society, lost among all sorts of intersections of identity. But we shouldn’t let it get lost because people are bad at talking about emotions. Isn’t it at all possible, even for people who don’t think about privilege in their daily life, that how our parental figures treated us could have an impact equal to some of our social and cultural identities?
I talked with Luis Ramirez, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and Clinical Coordinator of the Counseling Program of the Attic Youth Center, in Philadelphia, about this topic. The Attic Youth Center, commonly called the Attic, is the only organization in Philadelphia working specifically and exclusively to support queer and questioning youth. They work in providing a safe community, life skills programming, as well as mental health counseling.
Ramirez, through his work at the Attic, has counseled queer and questioning youth of various backgrounds. But one thing that remains the same is that many come from unsupportive households or households within which they are rejected. He said of his work, “We [the Attic] work with LGBTQ youth, between the ages of 14 and 23 years old, and their families.”
Stressing the importance of emotional support—particularly for marginalized youth who are often less likely to have or earn unconditional love and support, across the globe—Ramirez explained, “What we know for LGBTQ youth is that there are many struggles for them in society. Studies and research from the Family Acceptance Project in California stated that family rejection is a major factor that influences these youth.”
The website for the research Ramirez cited, said the following on its website:
“Although there is an increasing amount of information about the risks and challenges facing lesbian, gay, bisexual (LGB) youth (and much less information about transgender youth), we know far less about their strengths and resiliency, including the strengths of families in supporting their children’s health and well-being. Even though the family is the primary support for children and youth, and family involvement helps reduce adolescent risk, there have been no previous comprehensive studies of how parental, caregiver and family reactions controbute [sic] to their lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) children’s risk and well-being.”
The research focuses specifically on queer youth, but that certainly doesn’t mean that research is inapplicable to people of other identifiers, whether they are related to race, ability, gender expression, or religion. Rejection from family can feel the same across the world and can manifest in very much the same ways for people who are nothing alike in society, setting them up for similar disadvantages later in life.
“Rejection affects mental health on many levels. They feel they’re not worth anything, they feel disconnected from people, they feel unstable, so they’re more likely to engage in risky behaviors like self-harming, drugs, or unsafe sex. There is proof that through connection to family the risks are decreased,” Ramirez said.
It’s hard then to argue that family rejection doesn’t create a sort of emotional disadvantage that, through manifestations of risky and toxic behavior, doesn’t set a person up for a more difficult life. Really, how can we expect youth to focus on their education in the present, let alone plan for higher education and their professional future when they aren’t given the sort of limitless, shoot for the stars mentality that so many successful people grow up with? If you’re not told at home that you can succeed and that you can achieve your dreams, where are you going to get it, and if you get it from those other places does it even mean as much?
That’s keeping emotional privilege general. It gets immensely more complex when you add in society and its hierarchy of other privileges. Ramirez echoed this sentiment, explaining that, “When we talk about privilege, it’s always connected to a system.” What this means is that a lack of emotional support may look different on a black, femme youth in Philadelphia than it would on an upper class, Christian white boy, because one has other privileges within the system that can validate and empower them, compensating for the family support that they missed. Meanwhile, black femmes, transgender and non-binary youth, people of all non-white colors, and the poor, among many examples, have little in the mainstream world that tells them that they can succeed and encourages them to work hard.
This isn’t just about the benefits of support alone. It’s about what the lack of it does in the long run. If you’re marginalized, and your family was marginalized, and your ancestors were marginalized, visualizing and realizing an escape from the cycle of oppression and being lesser than, is a brutal, shoulder-shattering task. It goes without saying that family support certainly doesn’t negate all of this, but it serves an important purpose in a youth’s present and future, because at the end of the day, we all need some sort of support system.
If people don’t get that support system from home, they’re tasked with creating it themselves, which is just another challenge facing those without emotional privilege. Ramirez talked about the importance of support systems, reflecting on his early years in the United States. “Some people have to create their own family with other people. I didn’t have opportunities where I came from [Mexico] but when I came to the U.S. I had a chance to succeed and create my support system.” He added, “Support systems are very important because they show youth that they have opportunities to move around the world and make real connections with people. That’s what we do at the Attic. We connect them with peers and mentors.”
What it boils down to is that a non-traditional support system is still a support system. Marginalized people, and queer people, in particular, have made non-traditional support systems since forever. However, the sad reality of it is that having a support system occurs for some people so late in the game, that by the time they catch up to the emotionally privileged, they’re often just finding their voices and their worth. It then makes it difficult to compete with people who were built up to greatness since they were kids.
Now, this isn’t meant as a read on people who grew up in supportive households. Talking about privilege is never meant as an attack, and when it is taken as an attack, it’s often more a reflection of the societal discomfort with oppressed people finding words for their oppression than anything else. People who are privileged don’t always know they’re privileged, which is another major piece of why conversations around privilege are so difficult.
Emotional privilege, like any other form is privilege, is not a science. It’s a unique, insidious, living creature that varies from person to person, and environment to environment. You may know someone who’s having a really difficult time because they’re not being supported at home. You might be in that place yourself. Comfortable with privilege or not, emotional privilege manifests itself so powerfully that we’d be silly not to invest more time and resources into creating a more community-oriented society within which people of all identities are raised with the idea that they’re important in the world.
I’ve used the word ‘privilege’ 22 times in this article, including the one at the beginning of this sentence. Some people will tune out the message because of the redundancy and prevalence of the word in and out of this article, but hopefully there are still people interested in learning and talking, so that through awareness and conscious empathy we can create a world within which everyone, at the very least, has a fair start, and any person of any identity feels like they can be whatever the hell they want to be.