Talking about privilege is hard. After all, how can anyone else make on judgment on how hard another’s life has been? We become so wrapped up in our individual hardships, that it’s become nearly impossible to see in which ways we have benefitted from institutionalized discrimination. It’s pervasive, and the inequality stretches across all kinds of intersecting identities.
Being privileged does not refer to your individual life experience. Privilege instead is about looking at bigger social and political trends. There are many facets of privilege, including class, race, gender and sexual preference, and they often interconnect.
The idea of privilege comes from identifying (or not identifying) as what is seen as the “default group”,” or the group that has set up a pervasive social, economic, and political system for themselves. For a really long time, the default in the US has been a upper class, straight, white, cisgendered man. This is not to say that there are not individual struggles associated with being a member of the default group. There are issues with men’s mental health, toxic masculinity, a shrinking middle class and rising income inequality. Life is not easy for a straight, white, cisgendered man either.
The difference between being privileged is centered around the fact that the social system we live in was designed for you, by people who look, feel and act like you do. There is no doubt that the founding fathers were straight (at least outwardly), white men. There is no denying that the US economy was originally designed and headed by white men. When writing the constitution, or any of its amendments, there was no input from women, non-white people or members of the LGBTQ+ community. These groups of people have often been excluded in the top tiers of our society, at least until very recently.
Take Barack Obama, or even Hillary Clinton. Political agenda and personal flaws aside, Obama is the first black president and Clinton was the first women to be nominated by a major party. The fact that it took this long to see any diversity in the head of the United States is quite telling; these people have essentially been excluded from governance until very recently. Of course, leaders such as Lincoln, Kennedy and the Bush’s still had to work hard; ascending to the highest office is never easy, no matter who you are. But the point of privilege is that because these leaders were part of the ‘default group’, they did not face the same obstacles as people of other genders, races or orientations.
The US was formed by white men, and the general population has internal bias in order to preserve that system of governance. Simply put, we often choose to elect people who look the same as the leaders of the past, because they look like past leaders. We associate the president with white men, therefore we are more likely to accept another white man in that role.
This is not a hard and fast rule of course, but implicit bias and systems of privilege are pervasive throughout our society. Women are often trapped below the glass ceiling at work. African-American people are often punished more severely for non-violent drug crime. People of south Asian descent are disproportionately targeted for searches at the airport.
Based on various intersectional identities and various levels privilege, as well as the barriers accompanied by them, can change. We’ve seen methods of how to measure privilege, such as the “privilege walk.” Participants are asked to take a step forward or back, depending on their answer to a variety of statements, such as “I have never had a roommate” or “I have never been diagnosed with a mental illness” (you can see your own ‘level of privilege’ through an online version here). Activities such as this can be illuminating; they give you a visual representation of how systems of privilege work. It’s not easy to categorize, explain or even understand.
All this being said, when someone is told to “check their privilege,” it is never a comment on that person’s individual struggles and hardships. Instead, it’s a reminder to stop, andreevaluate the situation through someone else’s perspective. No one needs to feel guilty for their privilege – this system is not one individual’s fault. However, we do need to acknowledge the existence of privilege in order to have inclusive and productive discussions.
NO ONE IS ASKING FOR THOSE WHO ARE PRIVILEGED TO BE SILENT, BUT THERE IS AN EXPECTATION FOR EVERYONE, NO MATTER THEIR LEVEL OF PRIVILEGE, TO UNDERSTAND EVERYONE ELSE’S EXPERIENCE.
In order to understand each other, we must try and see the world through their lens, as well as our own.
The best thing we can do is educate ourselves on privilege and implicit bias. Only through education and acknowledgement of these problems can we move on from a toxic environment that ignores systems of systemic oppression. We need to be brave and talk about hard topics in order to create positive change and counteract the harmful ways in which privilege affects us all, even those at the top.
Published on Unwritten on Dec. 7, 2016.