Privilege

Found a little something that I wanted to share on RVANews:

http://rvanews.com/features/walking-home-alone

This ties in nicely with recent discussions and reading that we have been having in my Contemporary Pedagogy class regarding privilege, and it makes me consider my privilege.

  • As a person of Caucasian heritage, I have privilege. I have the privilege of not having to worry that I might be negatively judged by the color of my skin, by most people. I have the privilege of applying for most jobs, of walking into most stores, of approaching strangers, of walking down the street…all without the concern that I might start off with a strike against me, be eyed with suspicion, be treated with mistrust, or outright avoided simply because of how I look.
  • As a man of above-average height, I have privilege. For the most part, I have the privilege of of not fearing for my safety when I walk the streets or going on a run. I have the privilege of not living my life in fear that I might be raped while going about my daily business. I have the privilege of going to work and not necessarily having to worry as much that I might be the victim of harassment or discrimination based on my gender. I have the privilege of being deferred to in many situations, and having the confidence to assume a position of leadership if I so choose, simply because of the fact that I bear a Y chromosome.
  • As a heterosexual man, I have privilege. I have the privilege of loving someone that I am attracted to. I have the privilege of marrying that person if I so choose, and I have the privilege of checking the ‘married’ box on my tax returns. I have the privilege of sharing health insurance with my partner, and arranging for life insurance should something happen to me. I have the privilege of not having to wonder if something is wrong with me, or wondering if I must keep my true self secret from others for fear that they will not understand. I have the privilege of not living with confusion about my identity, and fearing that I might become a victim because of it.
  • As someone who is fully able, and physically whole, I have privilege. I have the privilege of walking, running and jumping. I have the privilege of access to almost any place that I wish to go, without being limited by the need for special accommodations or handicapped access. I have the privilege of not only walking down the street, but of doing so without fear that I will be the object of sly glances, outright staring or pitying looks. I have the privilege of not having to explain how it happened, or what it is like, and the privilege of living my life without dependence on others, if I so choose.
  • As someone who was born and raised in the United States, I have privilege. I have the privilege of knowing that my problems are problems of the first world. I have the privilege of living without fear of war, poverty, disease, famine, or a host of other issues that plague those less fortunate than me. I have the privilege of knowing one of the highest standards of living in the world, and all of the benefits that entails.
  • As someone who was raised in a nuclear family by a loving mother and father, I have privilege. I have the privilege of not having to explain why I only had my mother, or was raised by my dads. I have the privilege of not having to explain where the bruises came from, and I have the privilege of not having to work so hard to break free of the cycle that was perpetuated by my parent or parents.
  • As someone who was raised by parents who worked hard, but did not necessarily have to worry that they might not be able to feed their children or provide for them a place to live or clothes to wear…I have privilege. I have the privilege of not growing up knowing what hunger and malnutrition are like. I have the privilege of getting new clothes for school, gifts for the holidays, vacations in the summer, and an education in how to manage my finances wisely.
  • As someone who was raised by college-educated parents, I have privilege. I have the privilege of being raised to respect school and to expect a college education. I have the privilege of having parents who helped me to pay for college, and who expected me to earn the money to pay my share. I have the privilege of being able to find work during the summers and after school so that I could save up money for tuition.
  • As someone who was raised in a Protestant family, I have privilege. I have the privilege of growing up as a member of the predominant faith in my native country. I have the privilege of growing up knowing that federal holidays coincide with the customs that my family observes. I have the privilege of not having to explain my beliefs, or being judged because of the way I worship, should I choose to worship.

These are the things that that are granted to me by my privilege.  Perhaps it is not a comprehensive list, but I think that it hits the main points. I have thought about my privilege, in one way or another, for most of my life. Learning to recognize privilege has been a long and slow process, but one that has gradually been accelerating throughout my life. So what is the next step beyond just recognizing it? The only real starting point that I can think of is the Kübler-Ross model (aka the Five Stages of Grief) that I learned about in Psychology class oh so many years ago. I would venture to say that most people have heard of the five stages (denial, anger, bargaining, grief and acceptance), but I am not sure if all of those stages are really applicable. Perhaps it depends upon the path that you take to recognizing your privilege? For that matter, where does recognition fit into the scheme of things? Still, I like the last stage, which is acceptance. That seems like an important part of dealing with privilege. Should you deny who you are, or the life you have?

Everyone is inherently different, and most of us have privilege of some sort. This privilege can place seemingly uncrossable divides between people that might, to all outward appearances, share commonalities that ought to bring them together. It can also build bridges between people who might otherwise seem to hail from different worlds. June Jordan made this observation in her 1982 essay the ‘Report from the Bahamas’. She described the feeling of complete and utter separation that the privilege of being an educated, well-employed black woman from the US placed between herself and ‘Olivia’, a black woman from the Bahamas who cleaned her room. Likewise she described how a shared understanding of spousal abuse could unite a white, Irish woman and a black South African woman in a way that she (June Jordan) could not hope to match. Privilege is quite a powerful force that can both unite and divide. The most important consideration, in my opinion,  seems to be how you deal with it.

That being said, I would propose a revision of Kübler-Ross to describe my approach to dealing with so much privilege. I would begin by suggesting that the first four stages are optional. If your starting point is denial, it may be necessary to work through the subsequent stages, but ultimately you want to end up at recognition. Once you recognize your privilege, I think that you have to accept it for what it is. Once you can do that, you can live with and start to understand your privilege. As your understanding grows, you can begin to minimize the effects that your privilege has on others. In general, we do not really have the power to change the privilege that others possess or lack, and it is a special kind of arrogance to try to come to the rescue of those that you deem less fortunate. What you can do, however, is consider what it might be like for someone whose situation differs from you. Think about how they might be affected by the things that you say or do. Defy some of those stereotypes that might exemplify your privilege. Listen to what they have to say, and strive to remember that it takes work to bridge the gaps that privilege can place between people. I think my progression looks something like this:

1a) Denial: If you are in denial, pass through whatever steps are necessary (anger, bargaining, or grief) to reach stage 2.

1b) If you are not in denial, pass to stage 2.

2) Recognition: Recognize your privilege.

3) Acceptance: Accept your privilege.

4) Understanding: Understand the effect that your privilege has on others.

5) Mitigation: Minimize the negative effects that your privilege has on others.

A final disclaimer: I wrote this quickly, and did very little research. If I were to learn that I had  inadvertently reproduced the work of another, I would not be surprised, but I ahve not intentionally plagiarized the work of anyone else. I find it highly unlikely that I have come up with something profoundly original, but rather see this as a synthesis of the many things that I have read and learned and discussed, both in class and out of class. This represents my best effort to summarize my thoughts on this weighty and challenging issue. I speak from a position of privilege, of this there is no doubt, but I want to feel neither pride nor shame about this. I want to feel grateful for what I have, to defy whatever stereotypes might be heaped upon me for my privilege, and to serve as a good role model for others, but most especially my daughter, that she might grow up to respect herself and likewise understand the role of privilege in her life.

Category(s): Education

8 Responses to Privilege

  1. This is a thought-provoking list of privileges, and it leads to the question: Is privilege a personal matter or or a public matter that is to be regulated (like a driver’s license, for example)?

      sequencingscott says:

      Thanks for responding. I would love to hear you elaborate on what you mean by the idea of regulation, as I am not clear what you are suggesting in this context.

  2. This is a long list of privileges, but I would suggest privilege is not exactly the right term. You are fortunate in the these many things, and you may feel that being so fortunate gives you certain rights, but I don’t believe that is always so. I feel that part of the problem with our patriarchal society is the assumption that these norms do lead to certain privileges. Being male, being white, being from an educated family, do not always result in good outcomes. For instance, males can be attacked at night and even raped. Child abuse occurs in all types of households, not just those with single parents.

    I think recognizing that you are in the majority, and recognizing that there are minorities out there with different outlooks and viewpoints, is important; in fact it is one of the core beliefs that our country is built on. As teachers, we need to be aware of the differences in in our students and make sure that we treat our students fairly, regardless of their personal circumstances or “privileges.”

      sequencingscott says:

      I am certainly open to the idea that there might be a more suitable word to convey the meaning that I sought when writing this piece. I certainly did not coin the term, but rather I used the word that seems to be most commonly employed to describe the sense of special advantage that is conveyed to a person based upon factors such as gender, race, nationality, sexual orientation, etc. It is my hope that I did not present myself as thinking that, because I am white, or because I am male, that I have zero chance of being attacked in an alley, eyed with suspicion in the street, or even raped. I think the privilege that is possessed is the ability to live your life knowing that such things are less likely to occur (statistically speaking), than if I belonged to a minority group, was a woman, or had a different sexual orientation. I agree with your suggestion that we must be aware of differences, and I would say that our goal should be to do everything in our power (as a teacher) to mitigate the negative effects that students might encounter as a result of different circumstances, or privilege.

  3. I really like the concept of going through the steps of denial, recognition, acceptance, understanding, it makes people think more profoundly about the final mitigation possibilities.

      sequencingscott says:

      Thanks. That was one of the things that I liked about this approach…the idea that it involves thought and introspection.

  4. I really enjoyed reading through your post. More often than not I find that people with less privilege tend to evaluate the reasons for why they are at a disadvantage but very rarely do I find people actually acknowledge that they have a privilege in our society.

  5. Scott,

    I actually think that you’re correct in terming what you describe as special advantages, privilege. The commenter critiquing you misunderstands that privilege is about what we carry with us that is invisible and that gives us certain advantages in specific circumstances. Sure, you might be attacked in an alley, but that’s not what privilege is about, in my opinion. It’s about the fact that you’re less likely to find yourself on the underside of advantages afforded by aspects of your privilege. You’re less likely to be racially profiled, less likely to experience suspicion, less likely to find yourself undereducated or suffer the consequences of not having family support or money. This doesn’t mean you’ll never experience these problems but that privilege gives you a pass on many things that others have to struggle to attain. Very nice post. Thanks for the insight.

    Take care,
    Jen