A lot of people have heard the fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea.” If you have not, the basic gist is this:
A prince is looking for the perfect princess to marry, and despite traveling all over the world, he fails. One night, a girl comes to his castle claiming to be a princess and requests to stay the night to shelter from a storm. That night, the prince’s mother places a pea in the princess’ bed and then covers said pea in 20 mattresses and 20 bed-downs. The next day when she asks the princess how she slept, the princess complains that she slept horribly and felt bruised because of something hard in the mattress, confirming to the queen that only a true princess could be so sensitive.
I’m not a princess nor do I consider myself to be a sensitive person, but let me tell you about the peas that I have uncovered bruising my back.
I live in Peachtree Corners (PTC), GA. PTC is a city that can fairly be described as privileged, which according to the city’s website has a demographic that is 60% white, the median home value is $325,000 and the average household income is $102,565. If I think about my own family, we fit into none of these categories.
We are not white, our home is well below the median value, and I cannot recall a single year in school that my family’s income was ever high enough to disqualify my brother and me from the free lunch program. As I went from elementary to middle to high school, I was constantly aware of these facts, but I never realized how much all of the privilege surrounding me truly impacted me.
The schools I attended were relatively diverse, but as I got older and began entering my gifted, honors and AP/IB classes, my classmates became whiter and whiter. High school, in particular, was an uncomfortable four years of sitting in classrooms surrounded by people who didn’t look like me. As the time to apply for colleges came closer, the more painfully aware I became that the people in the same room had some advantages I did not — whether racially or financially.
My ultimate goal for high school became to get through it and get out. I naively began to hold onto the idea that once I got to college, I would meet so many new people that I could forget the ones from my hometown.
Once I came to Tech, I tried to do just this. In high school, I was vehemently opposed to Greek life, but during my freshman year at Tech, I found myself joining a multicultural sorority, drawn in by its South Asian roots and the idea of finally connecting with more people I could relate to culturally.
For the past two years, I have enjoyed my new bubble at Tech — the mix of old and new friends. But a few weeks after being sent home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I uncovered a pea and realized that my back had been bruising for years.
This all came to light when a classmate from my high school posted a picture to her Snapchat story of the Global Mall, a well-known South Asian shopping mall located a mere four miles from my house, with the caption “Global mall definitely has Coronavirus.” On top of that, another girl then reposted the same picture to her story as well.
When I first saw it, I was taken aback, but I did not say anything. This type of behavior and language was not anything I had not already seen from the people in PTC.
The girl who originally posted the picture of the Global Mall also later posted the comment, “Privilege is when you think something isn’t a problem because it’s not a problem to you personally!” to her Facebook page in regards to the Black Lives Matter movement. When I saw that post, I wondered whether anyone had bothered to talk to her about her own privilege, especially about how obviously it had shown through her Snapchat post.
But it was not until two weeks ago, when my other classmates publicly addressed the post online and expressed their own disdain for it, that I truly realized how much the Global Mall comment had been bothering me. That time, I did say something.
I finally allowed myself to feel the pea of privilege in between all the layers I had built around myself over the years. And after spending a night tossing and turning due to the discomfort, I picked the pea out and described it to my classmate in a lengthy letter that I posted to her Facebook page.
I expressed to her that I understood she probably wrote the caption in a joking manner, but frankly, it was not funny. The picture might be of a building, but the remark was implicitly aimed at the people inside. The people that look like me. The people with a skin color that was rarely seen inside the privileged walls of our Honors/AP and IB classes despite attending a school with a majority-minority population.
These are the people within the walls of the Global Mall, a known landmark of South Asian culture in the Norcross area, that she was targeting for spreading the coronavirus. Yet, I did not see this same disdain for my people and our culture when she and her friends were fawning over the henna art being drawn on people’s hands at our high school’s Relay for Life campsite. And if this remark about coronavirus is what was seen on public social media, I didn’t want to know what might have been said by her and her friends behind closed doors.
And as I picked apart this pea for her, I realized how many more peas I had hidden underneath the layers of my metaphorical mattress. So I picked apart another pea and gave it to her.
I described to her how for years I avoided inviting friends to my house because of something one of our classmates said in the seventh grade — how he claimed to be better than me because he could afford to live in a “normal house” because his parents could afford it, but my low-income family could not afford to move out of our “old townhouse.”
This was a pea I was especially ashamed to find because it meant that I allowed the words of a twelve-year-old undermine all of the love and labor my parents put into putting a roof over my head, and it was one that had bruised badly.
But that is what privilege is to me: a small pea. A pea stemming from ignorance and indifference, whether that is because of the color of people’s skin or because of the wealth to their name. These peas of privilege don’t bother those who create them, and they might hide where no one can see them, but they still dig deep into the backs of people who don’t warrant them.
And yes, growing up, these peas might not have hurt as much to me because I never realized they were there. But they hurt even more. How could they not?
Because I now know that no matter how uncomfortable I might have felt in PTC, it doesn’t measure anywhere near the level of discomfort that those with black skin probably felt in the same schools as me. For every pea that I have gathered over the years, I know that the black community has been bombarded with a multitude more.
I have never felt scared to leave my house because of my skin color. I have never feared getting stopped by the cops and having the interaction go anything but smoothly. I do not see people who look like me being killed at alarming rates whether it’s at the hands of cops, an unjust criminal system or some other systemic flaw in our country. I know that my woes compare nowhere near to the ones my black classmates have faced.
Those are not the peas that bruise me, but I do see how they bruise others. That is my privilege, and I recognize that. But it is high time that we identify our peas and pick them apart before they bruise others.