I’m a low-income immigrant from Indonesia raised by a single mom. Do you see privilege when you look at me? It’s complicated.
I came from a public high school in predominantly white upper-middle class Westlake Village, Ca. — the kind of place where kids started sports practices and private music lessons as early as kindergarten. The kind of place where kids took $2,000 SAT prep courses. The kind of place where high school students got summer research positions in prestigious biomedical labs through their parents’ connections. Trying to support a family of four on $35,000–40,000 a year, my mom didn’t have the time, money or social capital for any of that stuff.
Fast forward to the summer before my first year, when I attended the First-Year Scholars at Yale program, meant to help low-income first-generation students prepare for the rigors of college life. Unlike my high school friends, everyone came from similarly disadvantaged backgrounds, so I felt a sense of belonging, or so I thought.
Like I said, it’s complicated. I was not and am not the “perfect” disadvantaged student. Most FSY students were first-generation and faced challenges when navigating the admissions process, but I didn’t. My mom was an undergraduate in Taiwan, and my older brother helped me apply to college. Others had to petition their high schools to offer AP classes, but I didn’t. My school was well-funded, had plenty of AP courses and was even ranked the 15th best school in California by Newsweek. One friend sometimes ate only Doritos for dinner, and another friend lived in a neighborhood where a kid was shot in broad daylight as he was walking out of school, but I didn’t.
Even though we all supposedly shared a common underprivileged identity, I never had to worry about going hungry or getting shot. I never had to petition my high school administrators for AP classes. I never had to fight as hard as other FSY students did to get to Yale. Hearing their stories, I had to ask myself: Was I actually underprivileged? This nagging question compelled me to keep the advantages that I did have secret; I didn’t want to be judged.
But secrets don’t last long between best friends. I couldn’t hide my privileges forever. So, over time, I let myself be vulnerable and was fully honest about my background and the specific advantages I had growing up. And it was fine. No judgment. No bitterness. No questions of how I got into FSY. It was not a big deal at all.
Why did I even feel this self-induced shame in the first place? In retrospect, I was stuck on the idea of the “perfect” underprivileged student: The one who was first in their family to go to college, the one who grew up dirt poor, the one who was educated in schools with more metal detectors than AP classes. That’s not my narrative. And, since I didn’t fit into that mold, did that mean I was privileged? Because, in my mind, privilege was binary. From angry Occupy Wall Street protesters chanting “We are the 99 percent!” to passionate Yalies discussing the Marxist class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, the society around me painted privilege as something that one either has or doesn’t have — hence the saying “the haves and the have-nots”. Thinking about privilege as binary made me anxious about not quite fitting into either category.
But I realized that’s just not how the world works. Other FSY students also had parents who went to college. And many had advantages that I didn’t have, like being raised and supported by both parents. One can have certain privileges but be disadvantaged in other ways. Just because I didn’t perfectly resonate with the stories of some of my FSY friends doesn’t mean that I didn’t face adversity to get to Yale.
Yes, privilege is real. But no, privilege is not binary; it’s a spectrum. When we fail to recognize this, the binary becomes toxic. It shuts down conversations because people get defensive and either deny their advantages or try to downplay them by saying “Well, yeah, my family’s comfortable, but we’re not super loaded like that person.” It prevents people from sharing their opinions and experiences, because they feel like they can’t do so without taking on the “privileged” label.
As a Yale community, we have to figure out how to have meaningful, nuanced discussions on privilege. I’m not exactly sure how to get there, but asking for people to understand the plight of the “privileged” only serves to perpetuate the binary. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that people should take chances and embrace vulnerability by acknowledging their specific advantages both to themselves and others.
So now what do you see when you look at me?
Hieronimus Loho is a senior in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .