Why It’s Important To Understand Your Own Privilege
Checking your privilege is nothing to feel threatened by. Here’s what checking your privilege really means, and why it matters.
It used to be that being called privileged was equated to being rich — but in today’s society, privilege has a taken on a much broader meaning. Privilege is the understanding that some people benefit from unearned and largely unacknowledged advantages due to race, class, ability, sexual orientation or gender.
I am privileged. I am a white, middle class, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual woman. I have been provided multiple opportunities simply because of the descriptors mentioned above. Although I am a member of a marginalized group (women) and have been doing a lot of work on my mental health, I still benefit from various other privileges. It’s crucial I recognize this — and that you recognize whatever privilege (if any) you may benefit from as well.
Because a life unaided by privilege can be frustrating. And dangerous.
What Privilege Translates To
In most cases, privilege means that many of the advantages we have go unnoticed — or taken entirely for granted. Since creating a comprehensive list would take considerable time, I’ve decided to offer just a few examples of what living with privilege looks like.
If You’re Living With Privilege…
Education isn’t a struggle
Black, Native American, Native Alaskan students and students with disabilities are suspended at far higher rates than white and able-bodied students. 32% of LGBTQ students have missed a day of school because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable. 87% of transgender students have been verbally harassed (e.g. called names or threatened) in the past year at school because of their gender expression. Girls’ bodies are sexualized by administration, and they are subject to increasingly sexist dress codes.
Finding a well-paying job isn’t difficult
Job applicants with stereotypically “black-sounding” names are less likely than their white-sounding counterparts to get called in for interviews. When a person of colour joins a company, people wonder if they were chosen to fill a diversity quota rather than assuming they are there based on their merits. The current pay gap between women and men is 20%. For women of colour, it’s far worse.
Products are catered to you
“Flesh toned” products match caucasian skin. A white person doesn’t have to look for hair products in the “ethnic” section. Even in grocery stores, marginalized groups are constantly reminded that they’re “lesser.”
Mainstream media represents you
People of colour, LGBTQ, and disabled people are under or misrepresented on TV, in movies, in magazines, in books, and in the news. When they are shown, they are rarely presented as being well-rounded and successful. All too often, they are reduced to a stereotype or a punchline.
The police are there to protect you
People of colour rarely grow up viewing police officers as a source of safety. In fact, the very people meant to protect them, target them. Unarmed black Americans are more likely than their white counterparts to be shot by the police. People of colour are more likely to be stopped and searched by police — without consent. People of colour are more likely to be victims of police force. Even the police themselves aren’t safe, as 9 out of the 10 off-duty officers killed by other officers in the United States since 1982 were black or Latinx.
Why does this bias exist? Dr. Shea Cronin, assistant professor of criminal justice at Boston University, explains:“We know from research that when officers hold very distrustful views of the community, when they’re more cynical … they tend to have more complaints against them.”
These examples of everyday privilege tie into why acknowledging privilege is important, but they don’t get to the crux of the matter. So let’s go there.
Why You Need to Recognize Your Privilege
One of the quickest ways to get people up in arms is to tell them to check their privilege. The phrase is often misconstrued as an attack, but it’s really more of a gentle reminder. To “check your privilege” is simply to realize that you may not truly understand a marginalized group’s experience — and to take time to educate yourself on their struggles.
Though privilege can manifest itself in abhorrent ways, the worst is to pretend the problem doesn’t exist at all. Deliberate denial — as well as claiming the victimized are trying to persecute the majority — is not only despicable, it does nothing to help solve the problem. Yes, it may be more comforting to maintain that equal opportunity is a reality, but it’s not true. And when someone is the very embodiment of privilege, yet insists that they are the one being abused and stigmatized, they only serve to confirm their ignorance.
Recognizing your privilege is not meant to make you feel guilty. After all, it’s not your fault that you were born with these privileges. It doesn’t invalidate any hardships you have faced and it certainly doesn’t mean you don’t lack privilege in certain areas. For instance, you may benefit from white privilege, but struggle with discrimination because you are trans. No form of privilege is exactly the same as another.
Recognizing your privilege means being aware that some people have to work much harder for the same opportunities you take for granted — and in truth, they may never experience them at all. It means educating yourself to the fullest extent possible, so you understand what’s truly at stake. It means, as a person who benefits from privilege, you need to stand up, speak out, attend marches, rallies, and sit-ins. It means having empathy and taking active steps to do something about it.
Privilege Isn’t About You. It’s About Systems Of Oppression.
Every single day of my life, I experience privilege in thousands of little ways. I also experience discrimination and rampant sexism. I’ll never truly be able to grasp what it’s like to be black, or trans, or queer, or disabled. I do know what it’s like to be treated differently due to something I have no control over (and something that in no way makes me “less than”). Tapping into that empathy can help me to be a better ally.
The most important thing to remember is that privilege isn’t a personal attack — it isn’t even about you at all. Privilege is the result of multiple systems of oppression at work. You can either choose to ignore this dark reality, or you can choose to accept it, and work to change it.
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