On Privilege

Every individual is an intersection of identities and just as many identities run along spectrums, each identity is also associated with a certain degree of privilege. Privilege is not inherently or necessarily a bad thing; it is just something that we must acknowledge and to which we can choose to respond. 

I think a lot of the resistance to the concept of privilege comes from an introduction to privilege that floated around the internet and within certain social justice communities that privilege was Bad and those who had it were inherently discriminatory, but that’s not the case. When someone says “check your privilege,” they’re not necessarily attacking you or accusing you of anything, but rather they are asking you to call into question the systems of power in place that might have led to your assumptions, behavior, choices, etc. 

A common argument against the concept of privilege, let’s take white privilege as an example, is “I didn’t ask to be born white,” which may be true, but it’s important to consider is that just as I did not ask for white privilege or class privilege, people of color and individuals from lower socioeconomic statuses didn’t ask for their position in society either.

Another response to privilege is a complaint about identity politics or an accusation of certain groups playing the victim. But minority groups aren’t Taylor Swift. Their perceptions of slights against them on a societal scale aren’t imagined. There are studies upon studies about the different ways that white and assumed non-white people are considered in this country. Simple things like the type of complimentary hair and skincare products provided in hotels and spas show preference for white bodies over bodies of color. Accessibility is not a priority for all newly constructed or renovated buildings. Feminine traits are still often considered weaker or less desirable. Though subjective, the life experiences if individuals at varying points on the spectrum of privileges will be different. 

A few weeks ago, I attended a webinar about challenges for women in the academic workplace and two things really stuck out to me. The first was that one woman from the medical science field repeatedly insisted that if you did the work, it would be recognized and you would get “a seat at the table,” but the thing about privileges, power and stereotypes is that hard work is often not acknowledged or respected the same way for people in different groups. Especially because the panel was about women being overlooked for certain positions, it was just such an odd thing for that particular scholar to repeat, even when presented with cases where hardworking women were particularly looked over. The other thing I noted was that while the panelists did discuss the intersections between race and gender and the additional challenges faced in “getting a seat at the table” or being recognized in those intersections, the three panelists were white women from Western cultures. So even in a conversation about how difficult it can be to get a seat at the table, seats weren’t offered to those whose experiences were being discussed. 

As a well-educated, middle class white woman, I have (what I consider to be) a responsibility to recognize the relation between the way the world views me and my experiences, as well as a duty to consider how I can combat systems of privilege or use my privilege to advocate for and create space for those whose identities aren’t granted the same privilege.

Frances McDormand mentioned inclusion riders at an award show recently and there were outpourings of both agreement and complaint. Many said that inclusion riders (a requirement that a certain percentage of cast and crew be diverse in an actor’s contract) were a great way to even the playing field, advocate for representation and combat existing systems of power. Others suggested that the idea of an inclusion rider was insulting and said things like “I want people hired for their skill not their skin color.” But a huge problem, as with women in academia, is that many people of color with skills are being overlooked because of their skin color, while many white people are being hired because of their skin color and not their skills but no one has a problem with that, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. 

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