Let’s talk about the p word, no, not the one Donald Trump boasted about grabbing women by, the one by which he justified those actions, privilege. Now, before I delve into some of the many layers that this word entails, I ask you, dear reader, to stay with me. I’ve found that addressing the concept of privilege is most unsettling to those who have it and chances are, if you’re reading this as a Sciences Po student from Menton, you benefit from some sort of privilege. The intent of this article is not to make you feel guilty about privilege rather just to make you think about how it affects you and others on a day to day basis.
Privilege is one of those words we usually encounter when discussing issues of social justice. Often times it’s used to allude to white privilege or male privilege but it applies to many more areas in our society including but not limited to: class, sexuality, language, ethnicity, able-body etc. Although it’s a term that most have become accustomed to seeing, it’s also a term which is never quite understood to its fullest extent. Take for example the concept of white privilege, if I asked most of the white students on campus if they have certain privileges which students of color do not, I’d like to imagine that most of them would say yes. However, if I asked them to explain how this privilege is exemplified in their day to day lives, they’d probably have a hard time explaining it.
We tend to understand privilege as an overarching idea distant from our own lives, it’s the fact that women get paid less than men for the same work or the idea that white people are less likely to be convicted in a court of law or stopped by security at an airport or face a hate crime, etc. Rarely do we think about the day to day implications of our own privilege. For example, think about going to buy shampoo. A simple task. When you walk into Carrefour or whatever store you shop at, do you expect to find the right shampoo for your hair? If you said yes, you may not think so but, this is a privilege. It’s a direct way of showing who is the dominant within the culture because it assumes that the product will fit those relevant within the community. This also means it excludes certain people within the community.
When you go out to a bar or club, do you ever have to consider that you may be harassed by one of the people at the bar or have someone try to dance with you without invitation? No? That’s a privilege. When you go to a bathroom, do you always expect to find one that matches your gender? Yes? Privilege. Do you openly express your sexuality without people being shocked or asking questions? Yes? Privilege. Do you see models who reflect your appearance in advertisements of even just on tv? Yes? Privilege. Do you generally expect that you will read from a scholar of your race and or gender in each of your courses? Yes? Privilege. Was it always an expectation that you would end up in university? Yes? Privilege. This could go on forever.
Rarely do we stop to think about the day to day ways that we benefit from being male, white, middle class, educated, cisgender, heterosexual, etc. The hazard is by seeing privilege as a far away issue to be dealt with systematically, we minimize our role in dismantling it. Or perhaps it isn’t just that we distance ourselves from the idea of privilege, rather, we become so entrenched in it that we come to think of it as the normative state. And so when we talk about fighting oppression, we think of how we can help others to get to a point of having our same status of privilege. We do not consider that it’s not just about those with less striving to have more but those with more willing to have less. Think of it this way, when we discuss the idea that women are paid less for doing the same job as a man, the push is generally for women to be paid more, but what if men were just paid less? Would they still be willing to believe in the idea of equality?
So what now? We all have privileges we benefit from, some more than others. It does us no good to merely feel guilty of our privilege, often times we are born into it. Begin by making the conscious effort to recognize the times in your day where you experience or lack privilege. Assess what these privileges are and how you work, both by fighting oppression and giving up our own privileges, to help reach a place of equality. Perhaps it is something as small as pushing your professors to ensure that you read from diverse scholars. Maybe it’s not automatically assuming people are heterosexual. Maybe it’s consuming more media that doesn’t just present your demographic. It’s challenging others who may not understand their point of privilege in society. And most importantly it’s listening. If a person of color tells you something is racist, believe them. If a women tells you something is sexist, believe them. These actions seem small but they have a large impact in creating a more just and inclusive community for the people around you and for society as a whole.