Oldest Siblings and the Problem of Privilege

Oldest Siblings and the Problem of Privilege July 24, 2013

The sibling hierarchy in our family. Ice cream kept them from each others’ throats

Did you know oldest siblings can be jerks?  Neither did I.  Because I am an oldest sibling and never saw myself as jerk-like.

Yet I’m surrounded by younger sibling friends who regale me with tales of just how selfish, self-centered, and just plain mean their older siblings can be.  And the more I hear their stories, the more I recognize myself.


I also went from being the oldest sibling in my family to marrying a youngest sibling.  Turns out when you’re the spouse of the least powerful person in the family, you not only join him in powerlessness, you’re a step or three lower.  Going from the top of the pecking order to the bottom has been a real treat.


As the oldest in my family, I had a lot of voice.  Every day after school I regaled my mother and younger siblings with all the adventures of my day.  I basically talked for 15 minutes straight, and then in the years of the terrible-forced-upon-Tuan-paper-route-which-ruined-high-school (another story), regaled them with my tales for another hour and a half.

My parents asked my opinion.  They confided in me.  I even broke up fights between Mama and my sisters, telling Mama she was wrong and continuing their fights while they went to sob in other rooms.

Although my younger siblings have all revolted against my hegemony and to this day delight in poking fun at me and showing their own oomph—it’s taken hearing the stories of my friends’ and husband to see how I privileged I was as the oldest.  How much power I wielded, and as a result how much jerk-dom I generated.

So the first problem with privilege is that when we have it, we rarely recognize it.  It’s like the air we breathe—we’re used to having people listen, and we’re used to having folks jump when we ask them to, and because that’s the world order, we don’t realize the resentment or pain of those beneath us, we don’t even realize we acted like jerks.

Yet we’re acutely aware when we lack privilege or power—we see the injustice, we feel the powerlessness, we hear how rarely our voices join the conversation.

The second problem with privilege is that even when we know we have it, we don’t know how to make things better.  I’m about as privileged a person there is in this world.  Sure I’ve got 2 victim points—female and Asian—but I’ve got almost every other privilege point there is, including being raised by loving if slightly wacky parents and having siblings who’ve forgiven my jerkdom and still love me.  I can’t actually give up much of the social capital that’s been poured into me–my education, my networks, my relatively healthy body that ate a lot of healthy food growing up.

But there’s one thing I can do–I can listen to the stories of the less privileged.

After the Zimmerman verdict, an African-American colleague sent me a series of posts by Dr. Christena Cleveland, a social psychologist, on “Listening Well as a Person of Privilege.”

They were great.  And convicting.  I learned a lot.  And I’m going to try to listen better.

I suspect most who read this blog are folks of privilege.   So friends and readers, I invite you to own your own privilege, read these posts, and reflect on how you can become a good listener.  After all, as our country plunges again into a conversation on race it’d be nice if someone actually listened—especially us oldest sibs who’re used to doing all the talking. . .

Recognize that the rules are different for you

Solidarity first, collaborative problem-solving later

Communicate on their terms, not your own

Recognize the limitations of good intentions

Seek to understand and embrace anger

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