The Right Way to Recognize Privilege

By Julie Martin

Recognizing the privileges we have is essential to understanding the viewpoints of those who are denied those privileges. When we are unable to see our advantages, we tend to defend them as resulting from pure luck or our own hard work, and cannot possibly see the detrimental effects that arise from the lack of those advantages. When we look at our situations objectively, however, our privileges become more apparent.

Tumblr blogger Tyler Oakley gets it right when he notices that levels of privileges and disadvantages exist and intersect for most people. Privileges run the gamut from race, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, financial status, age, physical and mental ability, and beyond. While privileges in one area may not completely wipe out the detrimental effects of disadvantage in another, they certainly leave the person in a better position than one with fewer privileges. For example, when the LGTBQI movement first gathered steam, often the voices we heard were those of affluent white men, for whom “coming out” was perhaps less risky (at least from a financial standpoint) than would have been the case for black men, whether affluent or not, and for those who identified as trans. Similarly, the “New Atheist” movement is dominated by affluent, highly educated, (mostly) white men. As the movement gains momentum, however, more disadvantaged atheists are stepping forward (“coming out”) in relative safety. Compare this to the mid-1980s in the height of the Cold War, when every atheist was immediately assumed to be a Communist, and often subjected to threats of physical violence, often carried out.

As an undergraduate, I participated in the Privilege Walk Exercise with one of my classes. Everyone started on the same line, and as the questions were read, we stepped forward or backward depending on our advantages and disadvantages. At the end of the exercise, my black classmates were in the back, I was alone in the second-to-last row, my Latino/a classmates were in the row ahead of me, and my white classmates were in the front row. As an educated, albeit economically disadvantaged, white person, I was probably an outlier because I was older than my classmates, and my childhood took place before the laws prohibiting discrimination based on family status were enacted. What struck me most, though, was that the exercise really opened our eyes, especially the students in the front line. Finally, we understood (at least to some extent) the advantages we had, and how others’ lives were affected by the lack of those advantages. Let’s be clear: this is not “white guilt” or any other kind of guilt, but is instead an awareness that our life chances are enhanced by our privileges. While the exercise failed to touch on many privileges, it helped us understand the idea of privilege and the effect it has on our daily lives.

Recognizing this, like Tyler did, teaches us how we can use our privileges to help bring attention to those affected by their lack, and hopefully this recognition will give us pause before we casually dismiss the experiences of others. We must also keep in mind the importance of listening to those most affected. As my mother sometimes remarked, “We have two eyes and two ears, but only one mouth, which means we should look and listen twice as much as we talk.”

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