“Privilege” is a word that I’ve heard much of lately. It’s a significant concept that helps people discuss broad social situations. In the mouth of the articulate, privilege merely is used to point out inequalities across demographics. It is not applied specifically because it isn’t meant to tease apart an individual’s psyche, but instead discuss broad social situations. Conversations about privilege are good things because they help increase awareness of inequality, and also pull on people to use their imaginations and empathy to dig into another person’s perspective. Sounds good, right?
So why are people getting uncomfortable with it?
Well for one thing, privilege as a word has some bad connotations. We think of crooks who get to walk free from court because they have money or connections. It is a descriptor that often infers someone taking advantage of someone else, like the old French aristocracy living in silks and marble as the peasantry starved to feed them. Then the aristocracy got their heads cut off. Is it a wonder that people get a little defensive at the word?
Have you ever been in a “Privilege Circle“? It’s kind of like Simon Says, but using privilege and disadvantage to determine your movement forwards and backwards from the starting point of a hand-holding circle. The more privilege you have, the more steps back you take, and the farther out of the circle you end up. It is an awareness exercise, and not meant for hazing. But here’s the thing: I am very privileged. How privileged? Well, I am a squarely middle class, fairly conservative, White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant from a whole nuclear family. But for my femininity, I am the embodiment of all the implied advantaged class of America: those people who have life “easy” and are defensive to protect it.
By the end of any Privilege Circle exercise, I am not just out of the circle, I am Pluto. From my perspective, I’ve just been disqualified from planethood. It can be isolating, intimidating, and from the fringes it can feel as if the real privilege is being one of the ‘warm-and-fuzzies’ in the central area still holding hands and commiserating over their negative experiences and life sufferings. I one might even start worrying about my head.
But here is the thing: privilege–as being used here–is a GOOD thing. I’ve never been followed through a store on suspicion of shoplifting because of my skin color, never missed a meal because there was no food in the pantry, never watched my family split under a divorce. Those are all good things, it’s just that I did nothing to earn them. I was born white, thus never faced casual slurs; my parents are hard workers and wise spenders, thus I’ve never starved; my parents work together and believe in their commitments, thus I’ve never had to live between two households. Those are just the simple privileges that I could go through life taking for granted. All my future opportunities and choices are aided by the starting point of being born here, as I am. And that’s a good thing.
The bad thing is that this safe starting point is not universal. Some people have had their spirits worn away by hurtful people and poor education, and their health worn away by bad medical care and maybe even bad genetics (by which I mean disabilities, not race or gender). Their choices are still under their control, but don’t underestimate the effects that depression and desperation can have on decision-making. I cannot pretend I would be the same person if I’d been born from a street prostitute with a drug-peddling boyfriend (random example for no other purpose than contrast). You might say there’s nothing to stop me from becoming great with that origin story, but poverty, low-resource schooling, poor moral upbringing, bad company, and general disregard from the public would tell me otherwise.
Privilege by definition infers exception. It is often invisible to the person receiving it, because it is something you are born with and receive passively. Like seeks like, and people tend to self-sort into communities that resemble their own level of privilege. My educated parents made educated friends and raised me to be educated. I had plenty of examples to look to and my choice to educate myself was a very easy one, even a default. We might want a safe and fairly comfortable existence to be normal, and I might look around at my college-going peers and think it is. But for much of the world, education is something to reach for, not default into. Privilege is not universal. So that’s why we have Privilege Circles, and conversations, to help us realize and remember that some people are just luckier, and that luck is not held by the world majority.
For a while this led me to have what I call “silver spoon guilt.” I didn’t value myself as a person because I wasn’t pulling myself up by the bootstraps. Anything I accomplished wasn’t really to my credit, I thought. To be great, you had to survive something tough–that’s always how it goes in books and films. For my life to mean something, I should’ve pushed myself through college from the hard-sweated wages earned in a restaurant or packing house. I got through to my third year of college before I realized that I didn’t have to be guilty. My parents worked hard to give me the privilege I grew up with. They grew up under divorce, alcoholism, and even starvation, and they both wanted to make sure I never would have to experience that. It should be everyone’s goal to see a better future, a more privileged future, for their children. Not having to slave for wages allowed me a healthier college experience and a chance to maximize the opportunities available in classes and on campus. The privilege that I received can and should be passed on to my own children, augmented even.
Some people have parents who can’t/won’t/don’t work to create privilege for their children. Those of us who can should be willing to step in and fight to get the opportunities down to the people who need them, so that they can provide a brighter future for their children. It’s too late to save the present, but we can try to save the future. Getting onto a boat from the water is much easier if someone is there to help pull you aboard. I can be that person to someone else. The next privilege I can give my children is a fairer, safer world. Maybe in several generations, if we keep making this effort, today’s privileges will be the future’s norms.
At the end of every Privilege Circle, I think there should be some sort of teamwork activity, which puts everyone back on the same footing. Privilege is an awareness concept, and not a defining personality trait. In the end it still is our choices that determine who we are, and we have the choice to work together. No matter what your measured level of privilege is, you are not disqualified from the human race. There is no Pluto in humanity.