What Is “Privilege”?

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I’ve seen a number of conversations short-circuit rather messily lately when the concept of “privilege” comes up, and I think many people are defensive about the idea of privilege — in part because the topic is heated, and in part because they don’t understand the idea, or are misusing it. There are two misconceptions about “privilege”: 1) that the concept implies that you are racist, sexist, or an agent of oppression; and 2) that having privilege is a bad thing. And these two assumptions make people defensive, so the conversation short-circuits. But both of these statements are false.

First, privilege usually means that you are the beneficiary of past oppression; it isn’t connected to your own attitudes and actions; it’s something you inherit from the past.

And second, privilege itself is a good thing; what’s unjust and destructive is that not everyone else gets to enjoy the same privileges. Those who do are the beneficiaries of a system that grants privileges only to some, not to all.

For example, as a man, I benefit from the privilege of being able to walk down the street without fear of catcalling, stalking, harassment, or rape; and as a white man, I benefit from the additional privilege of being able to take a stroll with no fear of being accosted arbitrarily by law enforcement. Most of the time, I am not even aware that this is a privilege I have — but it must be very visible to anyone who doesn’t have that privilege! In a just world, this security in walking down the street ought to be a privilege extended to everyone, not merely to one select group. My privilege in walking freely down the street without fear is itself a good thing; what isn’t good is that many are deprived of that privilege that I enjoy.

On a more subtle level, I have a privilege of being able to confidently expect that I will be among the taller and more physically powerful people in a room I enter. This frees me to act and assert myself in ways that others have been socially and historically conditioned to avoid, or in ways that would be very risky for people who don’t enjoy the same privilege I do. Though the privilege may be invisible to me at the time, I may in fact actively avail myself of it constantly, whether to dominate a conversation, get a thing done, etc. Similarly, I have the privilege of expecting that my words will be heard; I have the privilege of being assigned an immediate level of respect when I speak; I don’t have to wait for a member of another gender seated elsewhere in the room to second my words in order for them to have merit in the conversation. So privileges grant not only security to those who have them, but freedom of action and power in social situations.

The reason it is important for someone who does have privilege to be aware of it is so that they can also be more aware when others around them are not extended the same privilege. The woman on my left in a meeting may have things to say that have as much or more merit than what I have to say; if I am aware that in this particular social situation, I am being granted greater respect or more privilege to speak, and if I am aware that she is being granted less, I can take action to either get out of her way or actively use my privilege to ensure she has opportunity to speak, as well. And it’s important for me to be aware of privileges that I’ve been extended but that others haven’t so that I can listen with attention and respect to injustices raised by others (for example, someone reporting harassment) rather than dismissing their account out of hand as an exaggeration merely because I can’t imagine being subjected to what they’ve had to endure.

Sudden awareness of privilege is a driver of social change, advocacy, and effort. Many in the first world find their lives changed the first time they actually see that people — smart, good, everyday people — in many towns in the third world don’t have access to running water or to clean water. Realizing that many white people are exonerated of the very crimes for which black people are jailed can lead to a push to reform the prison system, or the court system, or to educate people about the problem.

Realizing that millions of children in Calcutta wore no shoes, Mother Teresa took off her own and gave them to a child — and then gave every box of shoes shipped to her to others. It is hard to be told about privilege because a too-natural response is to dismiss it; “I’m not a bad person”; “just because I wear shoes doesn’t make me racist”; “I have shoes because I work, and I can pay for them; other people should work, too.” But when you see the evidence of privilege before your eyes — when you see children running down a street without shoes — you might be more likely to be moved to take off your shoes and offer them to a young girl whose feet are deformed or cut or bruised. Or even if you didn’t, even if you kept your shoes on your feet, you might conceivably buy some shoes and bring them to that girl. Or you might tell some people and gather a box of shoes. Or you might start a nonprofit.

That decision to go get some shoes doesn’t have anything to do with deciding whether you’re a racist or not a racist, or whether you’re a good or a bad person: it’s a decision to deal with an injustice of which you were previously unaware but that is now right before your eyes, rather than turn your back on it.

And what a better world we’d make, if we listened more when we were told about our privilege (or, more accurately, when told about privileges we enjoy that are currently denied to others), if we considered it mindfully with open ears, if we could respond to an injustice prior to being confronted with it visibly. Becoming increasingly aware of your own privilege is critical to living as a just and respectful person.

Stant Litore

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