Monday, February 2, 2015

Privilege, Part 1

Well, I did say this project would be done in my spare time. For the past few weeks, I've had less time than anticipated. My apologies.

This week, I really want to talk about privilege and what it means. It's very common for someone to get defensive about this subject when it's brought up. No one likes to think they're benefiting (whether intentionally or unintentionally) from someone else's pain, myself included. So again, I want to remind everyone that these things will undoubtedly make us uncomfortable, and that is the point of talking about them - to unsettle and challenge the status quo. Discomfort is how we learn.

So let's make this personal.

Here's what you need to know about me - I'm in my mid 20s, Black, US-born with an immigrant parent and grandparents, (several but not all, on both sides of my family), from an upper middle class background (though now, we're lower middle/working class according to updated income levels. This is very common for my demographic.), private school & college educated, relatively able-bodied [I suffer from chronic and recurring pain, among other things, but most days it's manageable. I have no visible disabilities.], allistic (not autistic) but neuroatypical, raised Roman Catholic but now a secular pagan for lack of a better term, and I am neither straight nor cisgender. (And for the record, no the A does not stand for allies. It's Asexual and Aromantic.)

This is is a combination of both areas of privilege and oppression. Can you figure out which is which, what they are, and why? (See the chart at the end of this post for some hints.)

Take some time to think about your own background in this same way. Think about how your life would be different if any of these things were changed. How would it affect your daily activities? Where you live and what schools you went to? How well you did in school? The clothes you wear, types of jobs you might be able to get, the people you hang out with on a regular basis? How the people around you treat you and what they say about you?

All of this is privilege in action.

What is Privilege really, and where does it come from?

Due to the way many, if not most societies are set up, everyone on earth is given some kind of privilege over others. People are "equal" as far as we all deserve the same respect and we are "all human." But socially speaking, equality is still very much a myth and not a reality. We may all be human, but we aren't all treated in the same way. We do not all have the same chances to succeed in life, the same opportunities, the same experiences or histories. Social mobility is limited by systemic marginalization. Some people will have an easier time working and moving within the system simply because of who they are and what groups they belong to. Access to those groups means two things - that there are certain obstacles they won't have to face, and that their group is the one who put those obstacles there for others so that their group can maintain the advantage. This is the system of privilege.

This setup is intentional, deliberate, and at the cornerstone of all systems of oppression. As a person with any kind of systemic privilege, you have been intentionally set up to succeed at the expense of others. In order for anyone to obtain and maintain power, someone must be subjugated. One group is benefiting from the exploitation and manufactured misfortune of another.

Societies are set up so that those with privilege are not meant to be aware that they have it. If you are blind to the advantages you are given by the system, then you will believe that everything in life is fair and just when it's not and has never been, and you're more likely to fight to keep things as they are. You won't  even realize that there's a problem. So yes, it is always about race, always about gender, always about these things. They affect far more than you are meant to realize.

Becoming aware of your privilege and how it shapes both your life and how you interact with others is the first step in making equality a reality.

Let me make this clear - 

Privilege is not in and of itself an assessment of how wonderful, easy, or difficult your life is. 

Privilege is not anyone telling you that your life is perfect and that you will never have any problems.

It's not a judgement of who you are as an individual person.

It is a statement of where society has placed you on a social and political hierarchy, based solely on an aspect of your identity, and relative to those of other identity groups.

It means that there are certain types of obstacles in life, particularly types of prejudice and discrimination, that you will never experience because of "what" you are and what that status affords you. If someone tells you to be aware of your privilege, they're telling you that you have status within a dominant social group that they do not, that gives you an unearned advantage and a clearer, less complicated path.

In Part 2, we'll take a closer look at some specific examples of privilege, "layers" and intersections of privileges, and how they work in conjunction with each other.

Some additional sources around the web:

Anti-Racist Toolkit on Power, Privilege and Oppression

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