AUTHOR: Ashley Benedict
I know what you’re thinking: Privilege? Isn’t that topic a little worn out by now?
But really, is it? In my opinion, privilege isn’t discussed enough. Especially in light of recent events. For some reason, it’s become a dirty word. Whenever the word comes out of my mouth during a conversation, I often receive nothing but wide-eyed stares and scrunched noses. Nobody who has privilege wants to talk about their privilege. Why is that? Why do we work so hard to ignore this simple truth? This blog post works to examine what “privilege” is, who has it, why it’s important to acknowledge it, and how to move forward once you do.
What is privilege?
Definition: a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.
Privilege is essentially the opposite of oppression.
I’ll admit right now that when I first got into social justice, it took me some time to realize what privilege means. It upset me, because I knew that my life wasn’t hard, but it wasn’t easy either. To suggest that I had privilege was outrageous in my mind, despite the fact that, for the most part, I’m pretty darn privileged.
The word “privilege” can be broken down into many subcategories:
- Socio-economic privilege
- White privilege
- Gender privilege (male privilege)
- Gender identity privilege (cisgender privilege)
- Christian privilege
- Heterosexual privilege
- Ableist privilege
- Passing privilege
- Education privilege
And so much more. You may have one or more of these, but you may not be sure (or willing to admit) which one applies to you. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to find out:
- Do you (or did you, growing up) live comfortably? – In this context, let’s keep it simple by defining “comfortable” in the financial sense
- Do you feel relatively safe when you see your local police officers driving around town?
- Do you feel comfortable wearing what you want in public? (This can have both gendered, cultural, and religious connotations.)
- Did you grow up without questioning your identity?
These are simply a few questions that one should ask themselves when attempting to figure out whether they have some form of privilege. If you answered ‘yes’ to one or more of these questions, congratulations! You have some amount of privilege.
Now, defining what kind of privilege you have is much simpler. For example, if you answered ‘no’ to the question “Do you (or did you, growing up) live comfortably?” then you probably didn’t have the luxury of living in a very financially stable household. You probably faced some amount of food and financial insecurity during your childhood, and because of this, you may not be as financially privileged as others you know. If you answered ‘yes’ to the question “Did you grow up without questioning your identity?” then it’s safe to assume that you are quite privileged in terms of gender and sexuality. Many LGBTQIA+ individuals have gone through struggles that you may have never faced.
As a white woman, I can say that I have never experienced racism, so I am privileged due to my race. As a woman, however, I have experienced sexism. I am not as privileged as a man. As a non-straight individual, I have less privilege than those who identify as heterosexual. I am cisgender, so I have more privilege than those who identify as non-binary or trans. I live in a financially stable household, so I have more privilege than those who aren’t as financially well off as my family. I don’t suffer from any physical disabilities, so I am more privileged than those who have physical disabilities. I do live with anxiety, so I don’t have the same amount of privilege as those who don’t live with a mental disorder.
It’s important to note that saying that one is privileged doesn’t necessarily equate with dismissing the hardships someone may face. It’s not saying that anyone’s life is easy. What privilege tries to address is the fact that, due to our identities and how society perceives certain social groups, many people do have more privilege than others. All that you’re being asked to do is recognize how your social status (which you most likely didn’t ask to have) may provide you with benefits that someone with a different social status may not have.
Why is it important to acknowledge your privilege?
I think it’s important to first emphasize – again – that acknowledging your privilege doesn’t mean that you don’t face hardships in life. I think that’s where a lot of confusion comes from for most people. When your privilege is pointed out to you, nobody is saying that you live an easy life. You may live a very difficult life. And, you may be privileged in one way, but underprivileged in another. It is important to recognize the difference.
When you acknowledge your privilege, you are essentially having a conversation with yourself. If you are white, yes, you have white privilege. And it may take a while to acknowledge, but the truth remains the same. This simply means that you will never face discrimination because you are white. You will never face the same magnitude of discrimination that other races experience, such as the black community. If you are a man, you have male privilege, meaning, you will never face discrimination because of your sex or gender, whether it be in the workforce or in your everyday life. You will never be forced to endure society’s misandristic ideals (because they hardly exist), like women are forced to endure misogyny. If you are cisgender, you are privileged that you fall within society’s binary expectations of what gender is. You will never face the amount of discrimination that trans and non-binary individuals deal with in their every day lives.
Like previously said, this does not mean that you don’t face hardships. In the scope of privilege, it simply means that certain kinds of hardships will never affect you. It’s important to acknowledge this, because distinguishing where you have privilege and where you may not will ultimately help you form a better understanding of the world. Not only that, but acknowledging your privilege is a crucial step in recognizing the discrimination that other marginalized groups face and joining to fight against it. Those of us who have certain privileges should use that privilege for good and try to change these existing social structures that are damaging to our fellow citizens.
What do you do once this privilege is acknowledged?
First of all, here’s what not to do:
- Don’t defend yourself. No one is attacking you. No one is blaming you for having these privileges. Yes, you may have had a difficult life, but this is not the time to bring that up. Don’t ignore the hardships that other people may face just because you yourself have also faced hardships. Take this as an opportunity to stop and listen. Show compassion and empathy to your peers.
- Don’t force them to spill their life story to you. Not only is this rude and overstepping boundaries, but it seems as though you are trying to compare their struggles to yours. If they want to educate you, that’s fine, but don’t try and force them to. Your education and willingness to learn is up to you.
- Feeling guilty doesn’t help anyone. And when someone points out your privilege to you, their intentions aren’t to make you feel bad. In order to fix the problems of oppression and injustice, it is crucial that people be made aware of all components of the system. This includes privilege. You can acknowledge your guilt and examine why it is you feel guilty – this can only lead to a better understanding of yourself and the privileges you hold as opposed to others. However, guilt has a way of festering. Don’t let it fester.
Once you acknowledge your privilege, it is imperative that you first do your research. Educate yourself on how your privilege impacts yourself and others. Ask yourself questions that will help you reflect on your experiences, and how others’ experiences may be different than yours. For example, if you are a white man, you probably feel pretty safe if you’re walking alone at night. Stop and ask yourself why that is, and why women often feel a sense of fear in this same situation. Ask yourself why it is that women are taught to hold their keys in case of being attacked, or why we often call someone to pick us up, or why we tend to walk in groups.
It’s also crucial that you take this as an opportunity to stop and listen. This is probably one of the hardest steps. It’s only natural for us to get defensive and want to compare struggles when people challenge us and ask us to check our privilege. Fight against that instinct. Take the time to listen to your peers and hear them out. This is a great opportunity to listen to perspectives that may vary greatly from your own. Giving yourself the capacity to listen to what others have to say is a great skill to learn, and will only help broaden your worldview and ultimately make you a more compassionate person. Being aware of the differences that exist between us will allow us to appreciate them. Listen to your black friends, and your Latinx friends, and anyone else who doesn’t share your identity. There is so much you can learn from others who live outside of your privileged bubble.
After you’ve educated yourself on each type of privilege you hold, it’s important to help bring awareness. By this, I don’t mean bragging to everyone you know about how much privilege you have and how awesome it is to be privileged. No. What I mean is that, as a society, we need to address these social structures that exist and we need to call them out. Stop for a moment and think about what makes you privileged. Are you white? Use your privilege to speak out against racism. Are you a man? Use your privilege to speak out against misogyny. And so on. Call out the fact that these privileges aren’t earned, but are instead a result of prejudices that revolve around those who are considered “outgroups” or “other” or “lesser” in society.
Next: Do something about it. Knowing that your privilege exists is good and all, but if you remain stagnant and do nothing with this knowledge that you’ve gained, what’s the point? In fact, that almost makes it worse. To be aware of your privilege is to take on a responsibility for using your privilege to better the world around you. And it’s not that hard. If you see someone behaving in a racist manner, why wouldn’t you want to step in and tell them that ‘hey, that’s not cool’? In my opinion, that’s simply being a decent human being. We are living in a time where it is crucial for everyone to take an active part in our communities. You are not an exception. Use your knowledge, and ask people how you can help.
Far too often, we (as a society) drown out the voices of marginalized groups. We have historically fought against the fundamental rights of these groups. Using your privilege to join these marginalized voices will, in turn, only strengthen this collective force. We are all different. And like I said, being aware of these differences is not a way to divide us (like so many tend to think). In fact, it’s quite the opposite. In order to achieve equality, we must recognize that we’re not the same and be okay with that fact. If we were to all take the time to research, listen, advocate, and do something when it comes to privilege, I think the world could be a much better place.
Don’t be one of the voices that drowns others out. Be a voice that advocates; be a voice that defends; be a voice that protects against prejudice. Use your privilege for good.