In addition to working at the Women’s Center as a student staff member, I also serve as a Resident Assistant in a first-year residential hall on campus. Recently, my paraprofessional staff and I have been exploring the topic of privilege by participating in meaningful discussions about the different forms that it can take on in our society. These conversations and shared experiences of my fellow staff members have encouraged me to dive into a deeper, more personal investigation of privilege and how it relates to my identity and my unique life experiences.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the concept of privilege, a dictionary definition classifies it as a unique benefit or immunity available only to a particular community or group of people. Yet what the dictionary definition fails to mention is that privilege is neither earned nor deserved by any specific group that reaps its benefits.
In reality, privilege is innate; it is a birthright that is automatically given to those who hold membership in a certain group or community. Privilege takes on several forms in society relating to identities such as gender, ability, class, race, and sexuality. It should be mentioned that one may simultaneously experience a certain level of privilege in one area of their identity while also experiencing a lack of privilege in another area.
Privilege, or the lack thereof, isn’t also always necessarily visible to the eye of a passerby. Yet these privileges are often at the root of social inequalities that exist in our society today. They may also cloud and bias our viewpoints of who don’t share the same privileges as ourselves, causing us to make unwarranted assumptions and conclusions about others. Therefore, it is important that we have conversations with each other in order to better recognize and effectively deal with our own unique privileges.
In my experience, it seems that when a privilege is pointed out to it’s owner, that person often has a tendency to become defensive about the fact that they are not responsible for their privilege. While there is some truth to be found in this statement, I believe that privilege is not necessarily something of which to be ashamed, but something of which we should be aware. In order to remedy the social inequalities caused by our privileges, we must first understand how these privileges negatively affect and immobilize others. Perhaps our privileges aren’t necessarily the problem: maybe it’s us. After all, we do not choose our privileges, but we do choose how we live with them.
What are my privileges? One of the privileges that I am most connected to is my educational privilege. Although I take out student loans and receive aid from my university, I have access to higher education and I am a college student (at an honors university, nonetheless) that is financially able to support myself through my undergraduate education. Because my reality is not possible for everyone, I consider myself to be truly fortunate in this situation. But in my eyes, simply being grateful is not enough. I want to use my privileges to help better others. As a psychology and elementary education double major, I have recently been thinking a lot about working in a high needs school after my graduation from UMBC. I am a strong believer in the idea that everyone, regardless of geographic location, socioeconomic status, disability, or race, is deserving of a quality education that enables success and potential. Although I am aware that this will be a great challenge, I am hopeful for the changes I wish to make in the world, even if only in the life of one child.
One of my favorite sayings comes from the movie Spiderman and it says, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” It is no secret that our privileges put us in a place of power. What may not be so obvious, however, is that this power should call upon us to think critically about ourselves and our ability to support and help advance those who experience a lack of privilege. It isn’t an easy task by any means, but it is a necessary challenge that we must undertake should we ever hope to remedy the social inequalities that paralyze so many members of our society.
Think about it: What privileges do you have? How are you “owning” them for the better?
To learn more about privilege, check out these helpful resources:
A helpful TED Talk that discusses how to begin conversations with others about privilege.
An activity that highlights examples of various privileges.
A Buzzfeed comic that explains what it means to have white privilege.
An NY Times Article that discusses the privileges associated with post-secondary education.