Yesterday, I talked to my friend who teaches English at a private high school in Hawaii. She was sharing how hard it is to get her white students to understand the concept of racism. Her white students complained they couldn’t relate to the text or concept because they had to stretch their brains to understand a different point of view and it took too much energy to relate to the poc characters and viewpoints. They also argued they shouldn’t have to relate their lived experiences to the book they were reading because they’ve experienced racism by being in the minority in Hawaii. My friend was frustrated with her students for giving up, for playing the victim, and not realizing their white positionality in the greater society. As we talked, I suggested instead of tackling racism to start with a more personal and self-reflective concept. I asked if her students could understand the concept of privilege and recognizing and being grateful for the privileges in their lives.
It is also a good week to think about privilege in light of the college admission scandal where people with money were caught buying their children’s ways into elite colleges. Is anyone surprised that rich people behaved badly to get their precious snowflakes into school? I’m not, the education system is rigged in favor of wealth. Privilege begets more privilege. Imagine if the people who got caught said, “My privileged kid isn’t using their privilege wisely. They can barely fill out their own college applications. Instead of spending a half-million on lying to get into an elite college, we should give that half-million to an underfunded school.” It would have saved them a bunch of money on lawyer fees too. Uber-privilege rarely ever gets redistributed on its own.
What is Privilege
My working definition of privilege for this blog post is a right or afforded advantage you may have earned or unearned. If I were explaining it to my kids I may say: “You are lucky you have [fill in the blank], not everyone has [fill in the blank].” All of us are privileged in some ways. If you are reading this blog post you have the privileges of being connected to the internet, being English literate, most likely have the privilege of vision or hearing if you are using a screen reader, you may also have the privilege of time – stealing a few minutes for ‘research’ or pleasure reading.
Realizing our privileges takes intentionality and self-reflection. It is hard to sometimes step back and step out of the feeling of discomfort. I also don’t want to minimize the impact of systemic oppression on our communities because of race. Many Black, Brown, and Indigenous people have systematically had and continue to their privileges stripped. Tonight I was reading a social media post by a Black neighbor who was visiting an elderly Asian neighbor to check in on her. Another ‘neighbor’ called the police. The privilege of walking down the street was stolen because someone else claimed the right of wanting to feel secure and comfortable.
It’s important to understand privileges and recognize when we have it so we can work to share our privileges. I checked in with a colleague about a project she is facilitating and she mentioned how there are a few people recognize their white and other privileges but don’t do anything about it. They will say “I know I’m using up a lot of air time…” or “I know I’m privileged…” and they keep talking. The problem doesn’t go away if you recognize your privilege and fail to do anything about it. The correct response is “I’m talking too much, so I’m going to shut up now” and start listening.
Here is an incomplete list of some of the privileges you may not be aware you have. I’m purposefully not including many of the privileges found on other list or activities (e.g. white privilege, male privilege, etc.) because those lists already exist and I want to stretch ourselves to think about other forms of privileges that are often times forgotten.
- English language fluency and literacy
- Access to technology
- Ability to walk or move freely
- Ability to communicate and be understood
- Time privilege – taking time for a leisurely activity or to think
- Travel – having the ability to travel and move freely, and the funds to do so
- Access to transportation
- Privilege of walking into a room and being recognized and accepted
- Privilege of seeing others like me in prominent roles (e.g. sports, politics, entertainment, news, etc.)
- Privilege of using language and not having it define you (i.e. swearing, not being deemed too uppity or lower class by the language you use)
- Ability to know where to turn when we have a problem – having a support network, access to professionals, etc.
- Privilege to congregate in public without harassment
- Having a home to return to
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