As a young white person involved in the activist community I have talked a lot about the word “privilege” and what it means. To me privilege is a word I use to describe unearned benefits given to me by societies and institutions and individuals that I interact with-in the United States. For instance, I am privileged in the fact that I am a white person.
How does that benefit me? In my experience I benefit from the fact that I can walk down the street at night without getting harassed by the police without probable cause. I am more likely to be “trusted” or given positions of authority in social groups as compared to people of color. People are more likely to listen, believe, and trust the information I present them than they are to do the same to a person of color presenting the same information. To learn more about how a person might have privilege from being white in this society, check out this article “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh.
Why should I care? I feel it’s important for activists, youth, and anyone to recognize where they are oppressed and where they are privileged. It gives us a better understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. Recognizing our own privilege can open dialogue about the issues that affect all of us. If we don’t recognize and understand what’s wrong, how can we change it? By understanding how we are seen, we can start to see the world in a different light. Knowing who we are directly affects how we see the world around us.
I’ve noticed in myself, and others, that whenever someone brings up the subject of privilege there is a lot of automatic defensiveness, “I’m not privileged, I’m poor” is a common response. We all experience privilege and oppression in different ways. I’ve learned to see that when someone points out my privilege, it is not because they are trying to invalidate my oppression. Instead it’s because they are trying to help me understand some of the oppression that I help perpetuate out of ignorance to that particular oppression and experience. In order to fulfill my goals in making this world a more egalitarian place for people, I have created a list to better help me understand my privilege and my oppression. I encourage you all to make lists similar to this one:
-I live in the country which I have unquestioned citizenship in.
-I am perceived as cisgender/as someone who is gender conforming.
-I am perceived as able-bodied.
-I am physically able-bodied.
-I am not addicted to any illegal substances.
-I have never contracted an STI.
-I am not currently homeless.
-I am queer identified.
-I am gender-queer.
-I am and have always been well below the federal poverty level.
-I have a mental illness or disability called Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
-I have been physically, mentally, and sexually abused.
-I am perceived as female and was born female at birth.
By making these kinds of lists we become more aware of how we perceive the world, where we come from and how our privilege shapes our understanding. We must acknowledge how we are similar to each other to begin to think more critically about things that we may not understand about each others identities. We do not need to feel bad that we have privilege because after all we all have at least a bit of it. Instead we can look for ways to use our privilege to make it easier for those without it. Remember, privilege and oppression is not about who suffers more or who benefits more. It’s about understanding all the different ways in which institutions, individuals, and society at large keep us all from achieving our basic human rights. It’s to help us see what is keeping us from recognizing each other and being recognized as full human beings. Recognizing our privilege is a way of opening the doors to educating ourselves on what oppression we perpetuate against other people. I encourage you to help fight the oppression and make a Privileges/Oppressions list.