Privilege! What a contentious word these days!
I’m not here to tell you to check your privilege, even though it wouldn’t hurt to do that in your own lives. I’m here today to discuss privilege, how and when I first became aware of it, and how I understand it.
For context, I was THAT kid in nursery that liked to kiss everyone. One day, according to family folklore, I kissed someone in my nursery class, a black girl, and mother told me to never do that again. At 5 years old, I allegedly asked why, and my mother replied because she was black. And to that, I’m supposed to have said: “I’ll kiss whomever I want!”, and that was that. Not much has changed. But joking aside, I always liked that story, which I personally don’t recall, because it somehow tells me that my mind hasn’t closed off or been affected by the somewhat racist environments I grew up in.
I grew up being acutely aware of being different, and I think I’ve always been very aware of difference around me because of that. I’ve always connected to other people’s pain of being different, of being left out, of being invisible. I’ve always thought that even though different things lead us to that pain, the pain, in itself, is the same. This was, paradoxically, a big blind spot for me. There was a time in my life, where I thought I could relate to womanhood, or blackness, or disability, because I was gay and I understood the feeling of marginalisation. I was blind to the fact, that being white and male often allowed me to move through the world with great ease, even though I was carrying massive pain with me. Other populations can’t exactly say the same thing.
The idea of privilege in this context can be traced back to 1903 and the work of American sociologist and historian W.E.B. Dubois, in his essay The Souls of Black Folk. In it, he explores the lived experiences of African Americans as being aware of white Americans and of racial discrimination, but of the opposite not being true, that is, white Americans rarely consider race and/or racial discrimination.
A big wake up call to the idea of privilege was an experience of working at a summer camp with The Fresh Air Fund in upstate New York, in the summer of 2009. The camp was for children from the different NYC boroughs, and it was structured like a school, with different classes and lots of personal development activities. It was intense!! Looking back at the staff induction, I must say it was quite progressive and focused on social justice, before these were the buzzwords they are now. We had heated and challenging discussions on race, particularly race in the US, and race in the lives of the children we were going to work with.
I remember hearing fellow white people say things like “But I don’t see colour”, which was something I also believed, and witnessing the reaction that had on black colleagues in the room. I remember thinking and feeling that there was something wrong with that belief, and it wasn’t until one of them said to me: “Then you don’t see me”, that I got it. When white people say that they don’t see colour, what they are actually saying, UNCONSCIOUSLY, is that race is not a problem to them. And it wouldn’t be, because the constructs around whiteness allow it, and allow all of us white people, to move through the world without ever having to think about race and the effects it has on people who are not white.
This applies to many things. I mean, I had a friend (!) tell me a few months ago that she didn’t see sexuality, that she “didn’t see gay or straight”, she only “saw people”. That’s all well and good, but the UNCONSCIOUS message in that, is that she didn’t see the struggles of people who are marginalised because of their sexual orientation, because she never questioned hers. That kind of statement, feels like my experience is being erased. It was the first time someone had actually said that to me, and whilst I wasn’t shocked, it was a telling sign that the whole “I don’t see this, I just see people”, happens to every marginalised population.
This is why the term “unconscious bias” exists. It’s not necessarily something we do on purpose, but it is there. Checking one’s privilege, simply means becoming aware of our unconscious biases, and it means LISTEN to people when they are telling you about THEIR lived experiences in this world. You may not understand or relate, but you can listen and accept that that’s how they feel. And the reason why that always sounds so charged, it’s because marginalised populations are not only oppressed, but they are also usually tasked with educating their own oppressors… and let me tell you, doing that is fucking exhausting!
But back to summer camp: we also did an exercise specifically focused on privilege. “Privilege walks” have been well explored in recent years, particularly through videos like this or this, and when I did this exercise, at 23 years old, it was the first time I noticed the contradictions of having privilege as a white male, but not as a gay person. The privilege of being well educated, but not of having to have worked throughout most of that education. And how other factors contribute to one’s experience in the world: race, belief system, disability, gender, socio-economic background.
In the exercise, you stand side by side with a group of people, and a list of statements is read out loud. Each statement represents a different kind of privilege, and in the exercise, you take a step forward, or backward, depending on your experience of that particular statement. I remember this silence settling in the room, as we saw colleagues moving forward, and backward, according to their life experiences. I just remember standing there at the end of the exercise, everyone in their particular positions of privilege, seeing people well ahead of me, and people well behind me, and it felt paralysing. It is an extremely powerful exercise! It shows how specific experiences will give us a head start in life, simply because we have access to them, and no other reason. It is not a competition of who has it worse, but simply an acknowledgment that some people do have it worse than others.
Which brings us to a concept that I found is inextricably linked to privilege: intersectionality. It is a term, born out of critiques of first wave feminism’s exclusion of women of colour, and articulated by many women even before the feminist movement itself, such as Sojourner Truth (1851) and Anna Julia Cooper (1892), as well as leaders of black feminist thought, such as bell hooks and Kimberlé Crenshaw. Intersectionality considers that the various forms of social stratification, such as class, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disability, do not exist separately from each other, but are, in fact, complexly interconnected, thus acknowledging acute experiences of marginalisation, when several of these identities and experiences, are part of an individual’s life.
This is an area of great discussion even within social justice movements themselves: in the LGBTQ+ community, for example, there is often a backlash against transgender people, because they are “too angry”, to which I often reply “well, gay men have been pretty angry in the past, so maybe it’s time we give trans people the time and space to do the same?” Black people struggle with colourism and misogyny within their movements, LGBTQ+ people struggle with the ever-evolving explorations of fluidity and identity, as well as widespread racism, sexism, ableism, and misogyny, within our movement.
Privilege exists everywhere, and we all have it, to various degrees and extents. I think people struggle with “checking privilege”, because somehow there’s an assumption that one’s experience isn’t valid. It is valid, absolutely! So is the experience of others! Everyone’s experience is valid, and there is space for everyone’s validity. Our problem is that we are raised to believe that there isn’t enough space for everyone. There absolutely is, and discussions around privilege are a way of deconstructing that belief and become aware of our many unconscious biases.
Checking privilege is to become aware and acknowledge everyone’s lived experiences, respecting others’ feelings about their own lives, understanding that one’s privilege may often be oppressive to others, and allowing others who have been more marginalised than us, to finally have a say about their thoughts, feelings, experiences, stories, and lives.