The Issue of Privilege
Updated: May 29, 2020
The concept of privilege is often a very touchy and contentious topic. Many people don't understand it, but it impacts us both personally and in the workplace.
There are many who are confused by the notion of privilege. They may have had a tough life and don't understand how their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, or any other dominant cultural trait for their area has given them better life experiences than those who don't have those traits.
The discussion on privilege has currently come into the spotlight again from the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, whose life was taken basically because he was a black man running down the street. This is an excellent example of privilege: There are those who don't have to be afraid for their lives when they walk down the street.
I once had my own privilege stare me down a few years ago: While driving on the highway, my car was hit from behind by a vehicle driven from a young black man. I'll call him "Edward" for the sake of this story. Thankfully, neither of us were harmed and the damage was minimal.
Both of us were pretty shaken up and, as we tried to think clearly about the next steps to take, an SCDOT driver showed up and checked in on us.
Because of where the accident happened, I was unsure about if we needed to contact the police about our accident. As soon as I asked the SCDOT driver if we needed to notify the police, I noticed Edward immediately tensed up. He looked terrified. My white privilege was that I could casually mention calling the police without fear.
Of course many readers might respond, "Well, maybe he had something to hide." That's the thing - are we immediately thinking that he had something to hide because he was black? Would we think that if it was a white person? Maybe. But it also goes to show that we misunderstand the plight of minorities when they fear for their lives and we automatically think they're trying to cover up bad behavior instead.
Remember when you were a kid and you were just minding your own business, trying to do something innocently fun or enjoyable, when an adult came along and starting coming down on you like they were trying to find something you were guilty of? And maybe you acted in a way that made them think you were guilty, but it was instead because you knew you were at their mercy and they were treating you already like you were guilty. This crude example I'm offering pales in comparison to the systemic oppression that many minorities face - the reality being that it's much more complicated and complex, with other factors that I haven't even touched on here - but I'm trying to find a comparison that we can understand. Those of us with racial/ethnic privilege will never truly understand what it's like to be oppressed - although gender and religious minorities might have some kind of reference point - but we can at least stop the toxic behavior of automatically tuning out minority people's pleas to be treated as if they are valid human beings. (Check out the documentary "The Color of Fear" for more info)
Validity. That's part of the privilege. Those with privilege are allowed to have our identities and behave authentically. We are allowed to be who we are. Those without privilege are expected to change their culturally-driven expression and sense of self outside of the home in order to help others feel better. Their identity is either taken away from them or presented as "bad." We hear about people who say they have to change their cultural hair, clothing, or manner of speaking when they enter certain places - yes, we all have to meet certain behavioral expectations and present ourselves appropriately in public, but when was the last person a white person was made to feel like they needed to tone down their whiteness in MOST places in the US (especially the workplace)? It reminds me of that time I walked by the underwear section of a major department store in the US and there were large images of white models everywhere - it made me wonder, would someone who was not white feel welcome to buy these products? Or even be in that store? Don't even get me started on all the missionaries who've told minorities that white children were the children of God and darker skinned people were the children of the devil. Even though we (thankfully) might not hear that so much in today's world, we still see remnants of it in our advertising, media, and just in our general biases.
I recently spoke with a young man from the Middle East who grew up in a family of refugees. He was not born in his homeland, but strongly identified with it. From his story, it was as if his identity had been taken away from him. As an adult, he grasped so strongly at his likes, hobbies, and possessions instead to help him build a sense of identity in a world where he felt like he belonged nowhere. Let me tell you, this guy has such a positive, loving soul. But you can feel his pain when he talks about his family and cultural background, and you can see how hard he holds onto his current personal interests as a way to feel valid and worthy of existence. To be more clear, he wants to base his identity on his ethnic and geographical homeland, but he can't. He is an American citizen who works hard to be a contributing member of society, but feels as though he doesn't fit in anywhere. So instead, he has to cling to temporary things like his love of coffee or his car as a means to compose his identity, which are lovely but serve as less meaningful placeholders for his true self. He grieves that he can't truly connect with the cultural identity he was brought up with.
Privilege isn't about how hard or easy your life has been. It's about the way you are allowed to exist in society - how your identity, your very existence, is treated as valid or not by the messages and treatment we get from the people and media around us.
And yes, the world is not fair for people of every color. Our experiences and our pains can make anyone imperfect and not see things clearly. But it's about being treated as though you have the right to exist and want to be treated with dignity, respect, and significance. It is true that anyone of any color can be treated as if they don't have the right to dignity and validity - that's considered a form of emotional abuse. It sucks when one or more people treat you that way, so imagine how awful it would be for a whole nation of people to treat you that way.
Before I finish writing this, let me tell you two limitations to my post here. I'm white, so I can't fully comprehend the experience that minorities have. I've done my best to educate myself and openly listen to their experiences. However, because I'm a woman, I do have an understanding of what it's like to be taken less seriously (and being told outright it's because I'm a woman). Also, my short vignettes here do not encompass the experiences of women of color. They have to deal with both racism and sexism. I have so much awe and respect for women of color and hope to learn more about their stories and struggles as well.