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Privilege: What it is and why you have it

November 10, 2009

We used to place a game, back in undergrad. Try to come up with the person who would get the most points on an affirmative action application. The winner was always something like a half black half Latina pregnant lesbian in a wheelchair. Pretty terrible game, eh? But one of those ‘not totally PC so it’s funny’ sorts of games. It’s interesting now, looking back, and realizing what we were doing. We were trying to name the demographic with the least privilege.

Privilege has sort of a different meaning when you start looking at systems of power and oppression. When you talk about someone with privilege, you’re not talking about the spoiled rich kid who’s never worked a day in their life. *laughs* That’s the adjective privilege, as in a privileged person. I’m speaking about a specific noun.

Privilege as a noun simply means possessing the power in any system of power. Whites posses white privilege. Men posses male privilege. The rich have economic privilege, and the abled have privilege because they are not disabled.

Now here’s the thing that is so often missed (cue “Everyone’s a little bit racist” from Avenue Q): privilege does not make you a bad person. It often leads to ignorance, but is not in of itself a bad thing. I have white privilege, and cannot loose it unless either racism magically ceases to exist or I dye my skin. I can do good things with it, but the first step is confronting my privilege.

I used to get angry at the idea of student groups for minorities. Everyone’s equal, and it’s just drawing a line. Why even have a group? I didn’t understand it until I went to a meeting for the student Atheist, Agnostic, and Freethinkers group. I had never before been in a room of acknowledged skeptics and nonbelievers. It was not a huge deal by any means, but in the back of my mind since high school had been a small kernel of fear in any social situation. What if religion comes up? What if people start praying, or try to convert me? I knew that I didn’t fit in almost every group, until I went to that meeting. For the first time in my life I was in a room of people who I knew wouldn’t be agast at my lack of faith. Suddenly I understood safe spaces a whole lot better.

I think that the hardest thing that comes with acknowledging your own privilege is first recognizing your ignorance of what those who lack it face. It’s easier to stay in your own bubble and assume that things really aren’t that bad. It’s harder to examine the world and realize that people really do sometimes do awful things to each other, for all sorts of reasons. It’s harder to realize that you have, through your own ignorance, hurt someone else. This leads to denial that the action was even wrong in the first place.

Race really is a hard one for me to overcome. I’ve been told so many things about minorities that it’s hard to overcome my programming. I’ve heard over and over again that racism doesn’t exist, and seen in my own life how very little conscious overt racism there is amongst the demographics I’m usually around, so it’s hard to believe just how strong the power dynamic really is. I’m working on it though. A while back I was poking around online, and stumbled across a post (I believe it was on the Angry Asian Man blog, though I’m not sure) detailing the author’s mistrust of the police. My automatic reaction was that this was another minority overreacting. Sure, in Compton the police kinda suck, but basically they’re on our side. Then I read through the comments, and some linked posts. There was story after story, from every minority in America, of the police assuming that a minority was a criminal with absolutely no reason whatsoever. The fact that the main story took place in Minneapolis I think really did it for me: it seemed impossible that that sort of egregious racism occured in city smack dab in the heart of the midwest nice region. It took me a while to accept it, but I realized that a lot of minorities around the country really do have to treat the police as a resource of last resort, because they simply aren’t trusting of minorities.

It’s crazy to think. How can my life be going on so happily ignorant, while all around me all around the country police officiers are pulling over black/Asian/Latino/etc. men for walking down the street? How had I not noticed this? How had I trusted these officiers? How come no one had stopped it before, or even talked about it much? That’s the ignorance of privilege. You just don’t see it. The world works for you in this respect. you just don’t see that it’s not working for others, because that’s not even in your life.

I’ll leave you with something that has stuck with me for six years. My brother made Dean’s List his last year at U of M, and so the whole family trouped up to the Honors Convocation where he got recognized. There was a student speaker there who knocked my socks off. Her theme was this: “If someone chooses to privilege you, what are you going to do about it?” Not that you should try to ignore it, or give it back, but that maybe you should try to find a way to use it. I try to hold that thought in my mind, especially when issues of privilege come up, and I realize I’ve been an ass.

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