Why It's Important to Think About Privilege — and Why It's Hard
Coming to terms with my priviledge hasn't been easy
I am a social worker. By virtue of the work I do, I think a lot about privilege. The process of becoming comfortable and open to acknowledging, critiquing, and accepting my own privilege hasn’t been easy. It didn’t happen all at once. I have had many "aha" movements that have helped me to understand my own privilege in relation to the clients I am serving and the world at large.
My profession puts me in the position of assisting individuals who are in need of resources, and who are often facing economic, educational, and environmental conditions different than my own. Further, when assigned a new case, I immediately hold a degree of authority over the client. Social workers are gatekeepers to resources that an individual needs - and are often unable to access without assistance. It’s a complicated dynamic. Good social workers attempt to curb the power imbalance, but it’s critical we acknowledge a simple truth: as professional social service workers we are, by-and-large, working from positions of privilege over our clients.
Thinking about privilege and challenging it is an ongoing exercise. It’s something that has become part of my daily consciousness. But it’s a difficult concept to grapple with - and one that I didn't come easily. I am constantly learning to challenge my position in the world, and understand the power imbalances that I am a part of. With friends, I sometimes will bring up the subject of privilege (not in a preachy way, I swear!) and am always surprised at how divisive the topic is.
Case in point: At a dinner with a friend to who works on Wall Street, I began discussing a recent New York Times article that looked at how high school students challenged and thought about privilege. I said, “I find it sad that a student was quoted as saying that she didn’t want to be called privileged, just because her parents were able to buy things.” There was a long pause, and my dining companion responded, “Well, who is to say she is privileged? She could be experiencing a lot of things that make her life hard.”
This comment is the crux of the issue when discussing privilege and how many misunderstand the term. Having privilege does not mean that an individual is immune to life’s hardships, but it does mean having an unearned benefit or advantage one receives in society by nature of their identity. Examples of types of identity that can afford an individual privilege include: race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic status, country of origin, lanuage, and/or ability.
I’ll use myself as an example: my privilege stems from my whiteness, cisgenderedness, middle-class upbringing, education, resources to food, access to health care, and familial support. In many ways, I am an expert on the ways my privilege has benefitted me. This is not to ignore that my gender, femininity, and introversion don’t at times put me at a disadvantage, but it doesn’t take away from the many unearned benefits I was handed simply from being born with certain traits and resources.
When I explained this to my friend during our fancy West Village meal, he became defensive. He cited his struggles learning to read, being born into a household with parents who had immigrated from Europe, and being in debt from school as reasons that he should not be assumed to be privileged. While he did reference the disadvantages that women and minorities experience, he would not identify with the label of privilege.
In my experience, his level of defensiveness is not unusual when discussing privilege. When I think about unacknowledged privilege as a phenomenon, I recognize that since hierarchies in most societies are interlocking, there is most likely a lot of privilege (be it gendered, white, heteronormative, socioeconomic) that is denied and protected. As a white person, I realize that I have been taught about privilege as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but I haven’t been taught to see one of its corally aspects - that my privilege puts me at an advantage over others. What I am reflecting in this article is not my inherent understanding of privilege, but rather a reflection on the knowledge I have gained through friends, mentors, teachers, observation, and reading.
As society generally does not give lessons on how to combat and speak about privilege, it puts the onus on us, global citizens, to address imbalances. While privilege is a tricky subject to talk about, and can spark misunderstanding. From my work as a social worker, I suggest a list of five tactics I use when discussing privilege with others - or with yourself.
1. Lead with empathy. Get an understanding of individual experience.
I find that part of the issue in discussing privilege, is that even individuals who have LOTS of privilege want to be acknowledged for their hardships. This makes sense - we all want empathy towards our life challenges.
When I first enter into a conversation about privilege, I start by asking about the ways in which the person does not have privilege. This is helpful not only in understanding the person more, but also extending empathy. In a conversation as touchy as one on privilege, it’s important to try to disarm defensives and cultivate open dialogue. Then, after speaking with the person about the ways in which they don’t hold privilege, I ask in what ways they do. (I’ll use myself as an example: while I am a woman, dyslexic, and have a chronic medical condition, I ALSO have the privilege of being upper-middle class, living in the United States, holding a graduate degree, having financial resources, and being white.)
I find that structuring a conversation that includes the way people have and don’t have privileges makes it easier for others to understand the power of privilege in creating a system of oppression - and this process is transformative.
2. Understanding the relativity of privilege
For instance, I am right handed, and in turn, have never been forced to write from a desk that is not fitted for me. It’s a privilege I have by nature of my birth. But it’s not to say that my right-handed privilege has the same social responsibility as the privilege that is my white skin color, wealth, and sexual orientation. The point I am trying to make is this: our identities are nuanced and intersectional.
Some of my close friends will get defensive when discussing privilege because they are afraid that the discussion will not talk about the powerful ways in which they do not have privilege, and as a defense, they deflect to speaking to only these things.
It’s important to understand – just because we have don’t have certain kinds of privileges, it doesn’t mean that we don’t benefit from other kinds of privileges. If we realize this, it’s easier to work together with folks who share our privileges and those who don’t to create a better, more equal, world.
3. Systematic injustice is good for no one
Systemic privilege hurts everyone.
Consider white privilege - For instance, in the US white privilege is a construction created by rich Europeans who wanted to combine their wealth by pitting poor Europeans against Indigenous and African peoples working as slaves. Poor white people were made to feel that they were superior to other races, and were given small privileges over people of color to create diversion. What this meant was that poor white individuals got to be superior to blacks, but still were not on equal footing with wealthy whites. Ultimately, these privileges don’t create advantage for the vast majority of the population, and subsequently, this division creates unfairness – and that’s bad.
Similarly, men have social and economic privileges over women. This is created from a deep rooted patriarchy that prioritizes men over women. Male privilege isn’t helping anyone ultimately though - it doesn’t help families where mothers make less than male partners, and it doesn’t benefit women in helping to advance the fields of science, math, technology, journalism, finance, and engineering. We all lose when people are treated unfairly and not on the merit of their person.
Ultimately, in order to move from a space of marginalization, people need to confront their privileges and recognize that inequality helps no one. As global citizens, we have the revolutionary ability to transform the political, economic, and social environment by recognizing that injustice creates a societal imbalance that negatively impacts everyone.
4. You don’t need to feel guilty or defensive when discussing privilege
One of the best life-lessons my father taught me was that guilt is a useless emotion. And it’s true. Guilt is a feeling that ultimately does nothing in bringing about change. I try to use this concept when I talk to friends about privilege. A lot of time, people will respond with defensives, or guilt. I have had my fair share of conversations where someone will literally (and I mean literally) throw up their arms and say, “It’s unfair, sure! But what am I going to do?”
To this I respond with a reminder that each of us is able to undermine the system of oppression by refusing to live with unchecked or unacknowledged privilege. Simply by reflecting and challenging our privileges, and working to change the system of discrimination through direct discussion, we can help to shift the status quo.
5. Consider ways in which to equalize power
Photo: wehearit.com | some people carry “lesser” burdens
To create change, it’s important to frame discussion on privilege with actions. As such, the conversation shouldn’t be, “Check your privilege, stupid!” but rather, “How can we work to make sure that we are understanding and undermining the system of oppression and privilege that hurts all of us?”
By framing the dialogue on action, and steps toward liberation, the conversation is more accessible and powerful. For instance, ask yourself questions like, “Can I, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time?” If the answer to this question is yes, challenge yourself to address why this is. Is it strictly due to demographics, or are those demographics shaped by historical discrimination? (For a list of anti-oppression questions, visit Dr. Peggy McIntosh’s open letter here).
For more actionable change, reach out to like-minded people within your community. I will give a personal example on how addressing my privilege got me involved in grassroots organizing: After a year of working as a social worker, I was dismayed by inequalities within social services. I reached out to a group that mobilized social service workers who were committed to addressing injustice. By joining with others with similar interests, I felt I was working to transform a broken welfare system, and it resulted in my professional work being more impactful.
I encourage all global citizens to reflect on the privileges you have, and the privileges you don’t have. Extend this conversation to your friends and family members to build a world that is focused on equality and fairness.
In order to break the systems of oppression within our societies, it is important to intentionally set-aside time to think about justice, and whether or not our values are aligning with the ways in which we live our lives.
What are your thoughts on privilege? Is it a topic you have familiarity with? Share your thoughts in the comments, and continue the discussion about privilege with friends and family members!