Can we Please Talk About Privilege?

Article by Indira Falle

Artwork by Indira Falle

You have likely heard the word ‘privilege’ being thrown around a lot over the last few, turbulent months. Perhaps you’ve done your research and you’re well versed on this particular topic. Perhaps, instead, you feel offended by this term which seems to simultaneously apply to and also vilify you. Or perhaps (and I hope to change this right now), you have not invested much time in thinking about what this complex and loaded term really means. 

What even is Privilege? 

I would like to start with a disclaimer: I personally, have a lot of privilege. It is not a secret and it is not shameful. I want to tell you right here, right now - you’re privileged too (just go with me on this one, it’s not a guilt trip I promise). Privilege comes in many forms and affects us all in different ways. Just so you know you’re not alone in this, I’ll take you through a quick journey of my own privilege and you can see if any of it rings a bell with you…

I come from a middle class family which means that, while we don’t take money for granted, we have sufficient funds to go on holiday and we can comfortably afford necessities and luxuries. I am cisgender, I do not suffer from a disability (mental or physical) and, whilst I am not white British, I have light brown skin and therefore am not subject to the discrimination of a black person. I rarely have to worry about abuse, discrimination or bias based on money, class, gender identity, disability or race. These are just a few of the ways in which I am privileged and all of these things combined make my life easier than so many others. 

This all might sound like one huge boast about how wonderful my life is and, in a way, that’s where we’ve gone so wrong when we think about privilege. Take a second now to examine all those things that you take for granted because they don’t impact your day to day life: race, gender identity, sex, sexual orientation, class, money, mental health, ability, education - the list goes on and some will affect you personally while others will not. Being born with or accumulating privilege doesn’t mean that your life is easy, or that it doesn’t face its individual challenges that come with being human. It simply means that all that other stuff doesn’t contribute to making your life more difficult; it means that you can go home at the end of the day and shut off those factors that are barriers in other people's lives.

An example here would be the Blue Lives Matter movement which is combatting the Black Lives Matter movement, by equating racial discrimination to discrimination faced by police officers following recent, racially charged cases of police brutality. This movement cannot equate in any way to Black Lives Matter, because at the end of a hard day's work on the police force, an officer is able to go home and take off their uniform, whereas a black person cannot avoid discrimination by changing their clothes. 

What does it look like to misuse our Privilege?

A common rhetoric that people like to use when confronted with criticism for their privilege is “I hate having to be so careful about what I say these days!” or “Why can’t anybody take a joke anymore?” This in itself is a hugely privileged comment which takes some unpacking. If you are able to make a joke or a discriminatory comment about someone who is from a minority group, you can walk away from that conversation without ever having to think about it again. For someone who has been marginalised or historically oppressed, this is a micro-aggression that will likely stay with them forever. So in the face of criticism, we are caused to examine our privilege and our perception of race, sexuality etc., which can feel an affront, particularly as our society has enforced certain stereotypes and misconceptions which we have all undoubtedly internalised.

So, why are we so offended or embarrassed when we are called out for our privilege? Why are we so quick to point out the ways in which our lives are difficult, to compete for who is the least privileged or has the most problems? Perhaps it’s because admitting our privilege means that we don’t feel we have the right to talk about certain topics, and consequently feel excluded or alienated from the conversation (it’s not a nice feeling is it…? Just imagine having been excluded for centuries based on your skin colour or your genitalia), so, instead, we try to integrate ourselves into the conversation with, “Yes but I have a friend who is *insert minority group here* and I think…” which imposes our un-lived perspective on the situation. 

Or perhaps, in acknowledging our privilege, we fear that our increasingly progressive world will attempt to deny us the opportunities that we have become accustomed to taking for granted. Too often we hear, “Yes, but what if the straight, cis white guy just happens to be the best for the job?” This statement, however, does not take into account the opportunities afforded to candidates prior to a job interview. If a person from a minority group has been denied past opportunities, for example in education, due to bias or discrimination, then they are less likely to be as qualified for the job as someone who has never been marginalised or oppressed. 

What are the benefits of a more diverse world?

It seems far too much of a coincidence that white students are twice as likely to achieve three A*s at A Level than black students, or that just one in three UK entrepreneurs is female. Our race, gender and identity play no role in our ability to succeed, but our society’s perception of these factors has hindered diverse success at a shockingly consistent rate, which is only now beginning to change. So perhaps we are, in fact, threatened. Instead of aiding us in our careers (as for centuries it has done), as time goes on, our privilege will perhaps get us only so far, as more and more businesses adopt diversity policies and we see increasing numbers of grass-roots organisations fighting to ensure that opportunities are afforded to minority groups (even if the rate of progress is, and has been, unbearably slow).

I can see this only as a positive. For so long, the Western World has been led by people who look the same and have had the same background (it’s up to you to decide whether or not you think the current leadership system is working), however, it has been proven time and time again that businesses with a diverse staff show increased profits; that diverse casts on television attract vast numbers of viewers; that culturally diverse music is in skyrocketingly high demand. Accepting that our privilege may no longer afford us the opportunities that we have been so used to, means embracing a more diverse and stimulating world, with a broader range of ideas and solutions to crises. So perhaps our ego can take a hit for the greater good?

How can we use our privilege in a way that benefits everyone?

Instead of hiding from our privilege, my hope is that we will all start to use it more effectively and in a way that helps those who are less privileged than ourselves. We could in fact, begin to see our privilege as a super power - a fast track to making the world a better place; a way to open doors for others. Instead of letting an offensive comment slide, we could get used to picking people up on their misconceptions or stereotypes, even if it doesn’t directly effect us. We could get used to doing the work so that people who are haunted by past marginalisation or discrimination don’t have to revive their traumas to educate others. Instead of clapping back with “It was only a joke!” when criticised, we could take the time to understand why others have reacted that way, and to re-educate ourselves where perhaps we are in the wrong.

Finally, we could realise that there is a time not to use our voice, but to listen to someone else's. It is vital that we don’t take up space where we could be amplifying the voices of those less privileged than ourselves; we could repost and share information, using whatever platform we have to promote diverse voices. We do not have to be silent on subjects that we are passionate about - however, we all must acknowledge that we may have more to learn about that which we cannot personally experience, and the best way to learn is by listening carefully and intently to the lived experiences of those less privileged than ourselves.