Why Acknowledging Privilege is So Hard

priv·i·lege
priv(ə)lij/
(noun) a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.

We’re all pretty familiar with this definition. We hear it in contexts like “It is my privilege to be here today” to people giving or accepting awards and parents start taking away privileges when their kids are in trouble. But there’s this other side to the definition that makes people less comfy.

Privilege: A group of unearned cultural, legal, social, and institutional rights extended to a group based on their social group membership.

Really, these two definitions mean the same thing. Except the first is general and the second is much more pointed.

Privileged people don’t like to be pointed at. They don’t like to be told the things or opportunities they have are unearned.

That’s not what that definition means, though. Saying a person is privileged is not meant to take away from the struggles they may have faced or the success they may have earned. Privilege simply means that you were in a better place to face those struggles and seize that success than someone who does not come from a place of privilege.

Individuals with privilege are considered to be the normative group, leaving those without access to this privilege invisible, unnatural, deviant, or just plain wrong. Most of the time, these privileges are automatic and most individuals in the privileged group are unaware of them. Some people who can “pass” as members of the privileged group might have access to some levels of privilege (J. Beal 2009).

Privilege is white people who say “I don’t see race.” Because they have race privilege, they never had to be aware of the social stigmas against non-white people in America. They get angry and uncomfortable when things like “Black Lives Matter” and whitewashing in films come up because “Why do you have to make everything about race?”
It is about race. You just have the privilege that you don’t have to see it.

Privilege is men who say “Not all men.” Because they have gender privilege, they don’t have to be aware of every way a woman can defend herself in the face of assault like women do. They get angry and defensive when women tell their stories and share their accounts of abuse because “I’m a nice guy, I would never do that, you’re just saying this for attention.”
No, we’re not. You just have the privilege that you don’t have one of these stories when every single woman does.

Privilege is cis people who say “Why are pronouns so important? Who cares?” Because they have cis privilege, they never had to go through the discomfort of dysphoria and internalized self-hatred. They get angry and uncomfortable when they’re corrected on names or pronouns and the bathroom issue is brought up because “Why do you feel so strongly about gender?”
Just because you don’t feel strongly about gender doesn’t mean it’s not important to some people. It’s about public safety for trans individuals. You just have the privilege that you don’t have to constantly consider it.

Privilege is seeing yourself in movies. Privilege is not having to ‘Americanize’ your name on job applications. Privilege is not having to come out to everyone you ever meet. Privilege is seeing Donald Trump’s popularity rock the polls and not being horrified.  Privilege is rich kids getting to go to college when they did a mediocre job in high school while the kid next to you had to work three jobs and get above a 4.0 to get the scholarship they needed to be there too.

I have privilege. I know Jessie has privilege. Chances are, you probably have some bit of privilege too.

Acknowledging this privilege may make you sad, it may give you guilt, but ignoring it is way worse. If a person ignores their privilege – if they look at where they are and look at all the people who have not reached the amount of success they have and doesn’t consider the social and cultural aspects that went into it – that person who ignores privilege may look at those unsuccessful people and think they deserve it. For not applying themselves or for being lazy of for not working as hard. And that doesn’t help anyone.

Yes you deserve your success. But those who don’t have the privileges you do deserve the same opportunities you had.

-JM

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