I recently met up with one of my good friends and we shared our experiences living in San Francisco. To my surprise, he shared with me that in the past 3 years of living in the city he has made hardly any friends. Furthermore, in all of the time he has spent living in SF he had never once been reached out to hang out with.

This surprised me. I’ve lived in the city for roughly the same time period and have no shortage of friends here. In fact, I regularly set boundaries on whom and how often I meet up to hang out with others because I simply don’t have enough time to attend everything that I’m invited to.

What especially surprised me is that both of us are heavily involved in the same activities and know many of the same people. When I asked about several mutual friends who have been very proactive with me, I was shocked to discover that none of them had once reached out to him. Despite being in exactly the same social circles, our experiences within those circles has been night and day.

A gap this large is too great to be purely a matter of our personalities. Rather, I’ve come to believe that this gap has something to do with privilege:

  1. My friend is a single guy from a minority background who is very modest about his job, though he has a great one.

  2. I’m a startup founder in a time and place where entrepreneurship is highly esteemed.

On top of this, I grew up in Palo Alto, went to Stanford, and graduated with a Computer Science degree. I’ve started companies for most of my career and consequently spend most of my time around other highly educated people who care deeply about their careers.

This really made me think about how Emily constantly reminds me that I have very low empathy. When you get accustomed to a certain degree of privilege, it’s harder to understand where people without the same privileges are coming from.

The other effect of privilege is that it makes those who have it “fragile” [1]. This means that for people of privilege, experiencing even a minimum amount of social stress becomes intolerable. Often this leads to excess defensiveness and triggers a reaction well beyond what might be considered “normal”.

I actually experienced this “fragility” over the last month, when I went over to visit my parents in law for the weekend and to do some car repairs with my father in law.

As Korean immigrants, Emily’s parents come from a patriarchal culture where they show love to one another by respecting hierarchy. Compared to Western culture, I’ve learned that the Korean culture is more deferential to authority than I am accustomed to.

In the case of working on the car, the Korean culture was brought to bear when I spent most of my day as an assistant, getting food and water as well as necessary tools for the repair. Despite this interaction being perfectly reasonable within a Korean cultural context, I was annoyed at having to be second fiddle.

Ultimately, my own defensiveness stemmed from my own entitlement about how I wanted to be treated. Rather than showing respect and empathy for a different culture context and adapting to it, I silently demanded that others accept and act upon own privileged set of values. The irony is that Emily’s father spent his entire day sacrificially repairing my car and I grumbled about it!

I’m now starting to accept that “Privilege” is my reality. For better or worse, this is something that will continue to exist whether or not I choose to do anything about it. However privileged or unprivileged we may be, I believe that we all get to make choices about we will respond to it.

  1. Recommended Reading: White Fragility.

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