I’ve had a lot of uncomfortable conversations in my life. I’m the type of person who hates being told when I’m wrong (like 99% of the rest of humanity) and it’s taken me a lot of time and work to get to a point where I'm not so stubborn about it. It’s hard work, and it’s not something I expect people to learn how to do in a day. But, in my line of work, I also do a lot of telling other people that they’re wrong. Indeed, I end up throwing around the word “privilege” in these conversations a bit more than I would like, and it is usually about the time that “privilege” surfaces that things escalate beyond control and become utterly useless.
You see, people hate the word privilege. It can be a discussion-ender. But understanding our implicit privileges and the ways they cloud our thinking is vital for a discussion in social justice to actually get anywhere. So I’m starting a short series on calling out and being called out, in three parts.
Today, we discuss the concept of privilege. Tomorrow, on being called out on privilege. And the day after, on calling others out.
Part One: What is Privilege?
Most people think of “privilege” as Mitt Romney or Prince William type privilege. No one (well, almost no one) denies that those who are born with every monetary and familial advantage are privileged. But when I try to apply that label to Joe Schmo at the grocery store, people bristle. “I’m not privileged!” they cry. “I worked for everything I got!”
But that’s not what I or many others mean by privilege.
Privilege is an advantage I have but am not always aware of. It is something inherent to my self that has the ability to affect how easy or difficult my life is.
For example, I am a heterosexual white woman raised by a mother and a father in the breadbasket of the United States. I grew up in an area where most of the people I encountered on a daily basis looked like me and had similar experiences to myself.
I did not, for example, have to worry when I applied for jobs that I would be expected to make extra effort to disprove a stereotype or possibly be outright rejected because of my race. I did not have to worry that people might follow me around a store because of how I looked. I did not even have to worry that people would ask me to be representative of my race during a class discussion.
As a white person, I had the advantage of not having to worry about how my actions reflected on members of my own race. I could count, mostly, on being seen as an individual and not a representative member of a group. My minority friends do not have such a luxury.
That is a privilege I have.
Now, let me discuss a privilege I do not have. I am a cisgender woman. This means I have to think about a lot of things that my cisgender male friends and family do not worry about. For example, I do a lot of online dating. I always meet in a public place and leave a note at my home with the man’s name and phone number, just in case something goes wrong.
I highly doubt that my name is on a post-it on my date’s desk at home.
I make plans for things mostly during daylight hours if I can, and if I have to return home late at night, I walk into my building with my cell phone out and my keys in a position to swing at a potential attacker.
I know of no men who take the same precautions.
Not thinking about your safety and being able to go for a walk at midnight without concern: that is privilege.
There are myriad different ways that privilege affects a person's life, and I could not possibly catalog them all. But I urge you to spend a little time thinking - especially if you're white or a man (or both) - of ways in which you don't have to spend time worrying about your race or your gender affecting the outcome of something. That will give you a pretty good grasp on what your privileges are.
Privilege is not something you can necessarily control (except in the case of religious privilege in the United States). And I want to make this absolutely clear, because it is important for the subsequent discussion: Having privilege does not make you a bad person.
Saying that you have privilege is merely a statement of fact, not a value judgment.
For example, in American society, I have the privileges of being white, cisgender, straight, and Christian. I also am mostly neurotypical (minus an anxious-depressive disorder, which is managed with hormonal birth control). I am average height and relatively skinny, and above average in terms of education and intelligence.
These are just some of my privileges and they affect my life in varying degrees. Realization and acceptance that there are some things in your life that might function to make your life easier is vital to work in social justice and progressive movements.
Tomorrow, we’ll learn about what to do (and, more importantly, what NOT to do) when called on your privilege – which will, inevitably, happen.