The Privilege of Talking About Privilege
Credit Robert Mankoff The New Yorker Collection/The Cartoon Bank
Google gives the following definition of privilege:
priv·i·lege ˈ priv(ə)lij/ noun
1. a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.
Oxford English Dictionary defines privilege as:
1. something regarded as a rare opportunity and bringing particular pleasure.
Most of us have privilege at certain times in certain places. That is the strange thing about privilege. It is not black and white, right or wrong, or binary. The vast majority of us have it. On some days someone might have more privilege, in some societies the same person might have less privilege. What is clear about privilege is that we have to recognize and respect when we have it. Why? Because when we have privilege, someone else does not. While we benefit from a special right that, in most instances, has not even been earned, then there is a person swimming upstream to achieve the same result.
It takes awareness and humility to be recognize the opportunities one has. Sometimes a person has privilege simply because they fit into society's box of what is attractive or powerful.
For centuries and still today, there were, and are, groups of human beings in this country that enjoy a greater value than others. Society constructed a hierarchy in which white men could fully enjoy society and anyone with "one-drop" of "non-white" blood could not.
None of us created this hierarchy. But many of us benefit from it. Take me as an example. I am Indian. My parents are from India. I was born in New York. I have an American accent. I have privilege in some societies because of my accent (in other countries I do not have privilege because of my accent). I do not share any history that happened more than 40 years ago in this country. But I include myself in the "we" when we talk about Slavery and the past atrocities committed by American society. Why? I didn’t do anything wrong. So why am I taking any responsibility?
Because I am privileged. I live here, my livelihood is here, my accent is from here, my clothes probably are not from here but I bought them here. I have privilege and I benefit from this society, so by the same token I have to take on the history because I am part of the hierarchy at whatever level I fall into it. I did not cause Slavery or any other of the atrocities or genocides in this country, but I live here and benefit from and fit into the social hierarchy. Because I was socialized here, I have this country's implicit biases which are a direct result of our ugly history. Therefore, I have to fight against that socialization. And, I have to own it.
Sure, there are many steps of that hierarchy that I do not apply to me: I have to spell my name on a daily basis. My name is mis-pronounced everyday, people feel more comfortable saying "Ms. P" or "Ms. K" in order to avoid trying to sound it out. I get asked weekly "where are you from? No, really where are you from?" My sexuality gets questioned weekly and usually in an intentionally and derogatory way. While I do not have privilege in those situations, others enjoy the privilege of not having to spell their name or be challenged on their place of origin. Some of us are swimming upstream while others are buoyed by the unseen support of their privilege. I can list dozens of ways I do not have privilege.
And yet, I still have the privilege.
Whether we like it or not, whether we asked for it or not, we all have privilege. It is no use to feel ashamed or bad about it, but we have to own up to it because there are, at any given moment, many more people who do not have the same privilege you do. When we speak and act without awareness of our privilege we are more likely to inadvertently frustrate a client, colleague, student or stranger.