Recognizing Privilege

Nothing seems to rile people up quite like talking about privilege. On the one hand, there are those benefitting from their privilege who don’t want admit or be blamed for it. On the other, there are people who hurl the word as an accusation. Frankly, neither is productive. You cannot deny that privilege exists, nor can you disregard a person entirely on account of the fact that they possess certain social advantages. The recognition of privilege is an important milestone, but it is a personal one – a step on the journey toward social responsibility.

I recently read Roxane Gay’s excellent essay on privilege in her book Bad Feminist. I could never put it as eloquently as she did, but I do feel inspired to share my thoughts and reflections. Gay defines privilege in the following way: “Privilege is a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage or favor.” She deals deftly with the two sides, as I’ll explain below.

Deniers: People have a hard time accepting that they have privilege. It’s not their fault, they contend, but neither is it something they earned. I’ve heard many people, particularly on social media, who argue in this way: “I don’t have privilege. I’m white, but I grew up poor.” Gay’s response is as follows: “the acknowledgement of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been and am marginalized.” You’re not being asked to discount your own suffering, but the fact remains that if you live in the developed world, you have things other people want… and that’s the definition of privilege.

Accusers: It’s not surprising that when you wield the word “privilege” as a weapon, people become defensive. As Gay states, “Too many people have become self-appointed privilege police.” We can’t hope to change hearts if we back people into a corner where their only option is to entrench. If we succeed in silencing them, we lose out on valuable discourse.

There’s this misconception that I “get” to write about issues of diversity and equity because I’m a member of certain marginalized communities. I would argue that it’s my privilege that gives me the platform to do so. I’m a multiracial female atheist who grew up poor, a child of divorce. However, I’m also a U.S. citizen and passport holder, able-bodied, college educated, middle class, married to a straight man, and have easy access to the Internet. I volunteered abroad, and when you see human rights abuses and abject poverty up close, you can’t help but realize how lucky you are. In fact, I believe it’s my recognition of my privilege, not the ways in which I have suffered, that have brought my heart to the social justice movement.

My home district settled a racism lawsuit shortly before I began teaching there, and one requirement was professional development in diversity. My first year, all school staff had to read Gary Howard’s You Can’t Teach What You Don’t Know. I thought it was excellent, but then again, I’m not white. Many white teachers felt called out and targeted for their privilege, which is understandably uncomfortable. The fact is, all of us as educators have to suck it up and evaluate our privilege, but we can do that through discussion and observation rather than confrontation.

Evaluating one’s privilege is difficult but important work. Here’s a place to start: It’s a good first step to start thinking about the different obstacles people have to navigate in their daily lives, obstacles you may never encounter. Perhaps this will inspire you to action, or simply to live your life more mindfully. If we’re to move forward, we must get to a point where my experience doesn’t negate yours and vice versa, where “multiple truths can coexist.”