Let’s Talk Privilege

What is this thing called privilege? How does it work? Is it catching? Do I have it? These are questions which started running through my mind when I was a baby feminist and just starting to get introduced to concepts like anti-racism and size acceptance, and here people were talking about this “privilege” thing and I was sure I didn’t have it, because, I mean, come on, look at me.

The thing about privilege is that you are rarely called upon to examine it, because it is insidious and invisible. And it is a difficult and slippery thing to examine because the very nature of privilege means that you are not forced, expected, or socially obligated to examine your privilege, though you can rest assured that people without privilege are most certainly examining yours. You actually need to work pretty hard to explore your own privilege, and when you do, you often start to feel kind of icky and uncomfortable inside, and as you start to realize what this thing is and people ask you to examine it, you get all defensive. Discussions of privilege strike you as personal attacks, until you go take a time out and think about it and go “aha, my privilege was showing,” and then you come back and ask for a cookie and start off a whole new round of discussion. (I can actually spare you this second round of discussion, if you like, by informing you that you are not entitled to cookies for realizing/acknowledging that you have privilege.)

So let’s break this down, kids, because I don’t really like buzzwords and I try to avoid them, but, the thing is, they are coined for a reason, and sometimes they are very apt and they allow us to avoid meandering explanations by using a common argot, so you’d better get used to seeing “privilege” on this site and understanding how it is used.

What is this thing called privilege?

All you dictionary lovers out there are probably saying something like this: 1 a special right, advantage, or immunity for a particular person or group. 2 an opportunity to do something regarded as a special honour: she had the privilege of giving the opening lecture. 3 the right to say or write something without the risk of punishment, especially in parliament. And, you know, that’s technically correct (the dictionary says so!). But “privilege” is also getting used as a catchphrase to describe something a little bit more intangible, which is the social privilege which gives people de facto power over others, even when they don’t mean to have that power, because of the way our society is structured.

Privilege is an outgrowth of our culture. And yeah, we all have it, to varying degrees. I’ve got white privilege, for example. And class privilege, by nature of being educationally middle class, even though economically I am debatably in the middle class, and grew up in the lower class. My father, now, he’s got all the same privilege I have, plus male privilege, because he’s a dude. And straight privilege, because he’s not a queer like me. And thin privilege, because he is not fat.

Privilege is something we are born with, and it’s something which works both for and against us even before we are born; for example, as the child of white parents, I got access to better prenatal care, because we live in a culture where prenatal care for people of colour is not prioritized as highly as prenatal care for white people (because of white privilege). And even as I was being born, my privilege was oozing out all over the place in the way I and my parents were treated. Even poor whites like my parents got better treatment than the Mexican parents down the hall. And the special treatment kept right on coming all the way through where I lived, what I ate, where I went to school, how I was treated by people. I didn’t have a choice in the matter, but I got privilege every which way and then some, even as I experienced victimization as a result of structural privilege. (Hello, intersectionality!)

Privilege works for me in many walks of life; my privilege allows me to drive my car without being pulled over for my skin colour. Privilege lets me get a job when I am competing with an equally qualified person who happens to be in a wheelchair, because I can pass for able. Privilege allows me a greater degree of social acceptance, opens doors to me when those doors are closed to others.

And it also works against me, because my privilege makes it fundamentally difficult for me to understand the positions of the people I have power over. I can argue that I didn’t ask for this power and I don’t want it, but that doesn’t negate the fact that the power exists, that it is built into the society I live in, that it is inescapable, that it impacts the very way in which I view the world. It makes it hard for me to engage in discussions with people of colour, people of a lower class than myself, people who are not able-bodied, because I do not understand what it is like to be in their position, even if I think I can imagine it.

And, of course, the areas in which I lack privilege make it hard for me to function in a this world. Privilege means that when I criticize things beloved by men, I am accused of being a humourless feminist, and I am missing the point. It means that my opinion, as a queer fat person, is marginalized automatically, before I even open my mouth, because of the society I live in. It means that I am told to “get a sense of humor” or “stop being so PC” by people who fundamentally do not understand my lack of privilege because they are living in positions of privilege, and who use their privilege to marginalize me. It means that when I ask people to examine their privilege, they lash out, because they perceive my request as a personal attack on them and their way of life.

The thing about privilege is that examining it often makes us uncomfortable. We are sometimes tempted to play the oppression olympics, or to say that we understand what it is to live without privilege because we have experienced one facet of living without privilege. The thing is, we don’t and we can’t understand what someone else’s experience is, but we can work to acknowledge our privilege, and to change the structure of society to make privilege less harmful. This means that sometimes we must sit down and be quiet, that we must take our chastisements respectfully, that we must step in when we see privilege being abused, but that we must also respect the rights of others to fight their own battles, or to tell us how we can help them. It means that we need to respect the creation of safe spaces in which people without privilege need to have conversations which do not involve people with privilege.

Being queer doesn’t mean that I understand what it’s like to be a person of colour, or a person who has not received the level of education I was privileged (here it is again!) enough to receive. It does mean that I know what it is like to be without privilege, which may give me some common ground, but that doesn’t make it my place to tell other people how to fight their battles. To suggest that I know their situation. To say that I know better than them. What it means is that, with some education and serious thinking, I could become an ally. A big part of being a good ally is examining your own privilege, which starts with admitting that you have it.

This does not happen overnight. You may fight it, kicking and screaming. And even while you examine your privilege, it will rear its ugly head, again and again. To take steps is better than to take no steps at all, but you must never assume that you have reached the end of the road. Privilege cannot be cured or erased, but simply by realizing that you have it, you’re taking matters into your own hands.

3 Replies to “Let’s Talk Privilege”

  1. My first day at clinic run by Big Medical Center in Rich Town, a mom called and wanted her baby seen immediately because he had coughed twice. The nurse looked at me and said “can you spell entitlement?”

    Because of our color, gender, citizenship, whatever, we all, to some extent, expect special treatment. Based on the fact that we are human, all of us deserve it. But some of us actually get it, based on color, creed, gender, etc.

    Is this fair? No. But if you can get it, you certainly are not about to give it up.

    That’s what all the stuff going on about equality is all about.

  2. Have you read “Savage Inequalities”? It’s one of my favourite books, and there’s a great chapter in which the author discusses a ballot measure which was designed to equalize school funding. I forget exactly how the measure was framed, but basically the idea was that money wouldn’t be taken away from any schools; rather, the budget would be rearranged to bring funding levels at poor schools up to the level of rich schools. The measure lost, because the rich people voted it down. They wouldn’t have had to lose anything, but they were still opposed to equality. Needless to say, the rich schools were majority white, the poor schools majority Hispanic. This wasn’t quite a mechanism of privilege, but it is a great example of how privileged people are so opposed to equality that even when they don’t have to give anything up they will won’t vote for equality.

    I would argue that people fighting for equality are not, in general, asking people to give anything up. They’re actually asking that everyone have access to the same high standards which privileged people benefit from (often without even realizing it).

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