Privilege. What does that word mean?
Instead of providing a simple definition of privilege, I want to ask you some questions.
Can you innocently walk down the street at night and not be deemed “suspicious”?
Can you be assured in the fact that if you get pulled over, it’s not because of your skin color?Can you watch the news and see people who look like you being positively represented?
Do you have a place to sleep every night?
Do you eat at least one full meal a day of whatever food you may desire?
Can you hold hands with a significant other in public and not be judged or sneered at?
Can you tell your friends and family about your significant other and know that they will not try to “fix” you?
Can you walk down the street at any time of the day, wearing whatever you want, and be assured that you will not be harassed?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you have some kind of privilege. Maybe you didn’t ask for it. Maybe you aren’t even aware of it. But you have it, and everyone knows it, especially those who answered no to the same questions you answered yes to. Sure, there are more concrete forms of privilege. For example, if you’re a white male, you can probably bet that you will earn more money than any of your female coworkers who do the same job. And if you fall anywhere in the middle class, you can almost guarantee that you go to a school, live in a house, and eat whatever you want while others cannot. But the more subtle forms of privilege, like the ones I listed above, are the most important ones. These are the ones we don’t think about, and because of that, we don’t think of them as privileges.
I’m writing this post as a white, heterosexual, upper-middle-class, college student. But that doesn’t mean I’m unaware of my privileges. With recent events involving Ferguson, Eric Garner, and others, I have come to realize that people like myself, people who unwillingly or unknowingly benefit from the oppression of others, need to take action. Why?
Because unfortunately, no one will listen if you’re not white.
That fact just sucks. But it’s the truth. And I’m tired of it.
I know that I am extremely lucky to have had every opportunity in my life thus far. I mean yeah, I had that angsty teen phase where my mom “just didn’t get me”. But other than that, my problems have been relatively easy to handle. I’m so incredibly grateful for everything in my life. I know that there are thousands of kids my age who are just as smart or smarter than I am that will never go to college. This awareness helps me connect to those people.
Over the summer, I volunteered with a social work team in the trauma unit of a hospital in Chicago. Being on the south side of the city, the trauma unit saw a lot of the same kinds of injuries and the same demographic. At first, I was afraid. I wanted to be able to talk to the patients, to develop a rapport with them, but how could I do that if I was just a little white girl from the suburbs? Their realities and mine were on opposite sides of a spectrum. I thought I could never relate.
But as it turns out, my awareness of the differences between our two worlds helped me connect. I shadowed one of the social workers as he moved from patient to patient and each time, he would tell them something along the lines of this:
“I know this sucks. It isn’t fair. This crap happens to people like you and not people like me. I get it. And I don’t like it. I wanna help you out, man, I wanna help you get through this time because I know you’re angry at the injustice. I am too.”
From then on, I used this as a frame to guide my own conversations with people who aren’t like me. One of the biggest challenges social workers face is the distrust of clients who come from different backgrounds. And rightfully so, too; I probably wouldn’t trust a rich little white girl from the suburbs if I was a working-class Latina. What would she know that would help me?
The point of all this is that in order to build those connections, to stop injustice, to end oppression, it has to end where it started. The privileged must use their powers for good. Unfortunately, we do not yet live in a society where the oppressed have their voices heard. It’s up to us to hear them.