How Privileged Are We?

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4 for Now

A lot of people get uptight around the concept of privilege. Often, it’s because they fear they’re about to get called out on not having earned their successes in life despite all their hard work. The fear—and the idea of not having certain privileges—is valid. But privilege is often misunderstood. While the success itself may be earned, some of the advantages leading to that success were not.

What, exactly, is privilege? Writer Naria A. Willis puts it clearly: “Basically, to have privilege is to have an advantage that is completely out of your control.” Writing a stellar college application essay is an earned advantage. Being a legacy applicant is a privilege.

So privilege isn’t something to feel guilty about; just know that you most likely have some. The thing about privilege is, whether or not we admit we have it, it affects the way we see and interact with the world. And I’m not just talking about white privilege. There’s privilege based on gender, class, religion, ability, and more.

One example of ability privilege is going to a friend or family member’s house and, even if they have steps leading to their front door, you can walk right into the house without a thought. How is that privileged?

Consider wheelchair users: how do they get up the stairs? How many of your friends’ houses (or apartments) have ramps or elevators? When about 14% of the adult population in the U.S. has mobility issues (CDC infographic linked below), you’re forgetting a lot of people if you don’t think about these things.

Now, if we can’t help our privilege, what can we do?

The biggest and best thing we can do is simply be aware of the privileges we do have. It’s hard not to think of the disadvantages we have, but try spending a few minutes thinking about access you have that other people may not. You may be surprised. (When I did this for myself, I listed 29 privileges. Woah. And there are probably more I haven’t noticed yet.)

Once we’re aware of our privileges, we can enter interactions with other people in a more open way. What is true about yourself that you may be assuming about the other person? What do you already know about them? Social worker Kathleen Ebbitt has some great tips about interacting with others who may not share your privileges:

  1. Extend empathy by considering how the other person does not have privilege.
  2. Understand privilege is relative.
  3. Remember systematic injustice—such as privilege—hurts everyone.
  4. Notice that the guilt or defensiveness you feel when discussing privilege isn’t useful.
  5. Consider actionable ways in which to equalize power.

(See more about these tips in Kathleen’s article, linked below.)

Don’t expect to figure out privilege overnight, but I urge us not to brush it aside, either. It will take practice and effort, but when we’re aware of our privileges and approach interactions with empathy, we can better advocate for folks without the same advantages.

4 for Later

  1. Five Types Of Privilege You Probably Have No Idea You’re Benefiting From by Naria A. Willis (8 minute read).
  2. Disability Impacts All of Us infographic by the CDC and the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities (transcription below the graphic, also available in Spanish). Note: The infographic itself says to click to view more info, but it doesn’t actually appear to be clickable.
  3. Ten Examples of Walking Privilege That All Walking People Should Acknowledge by Cara Liebowitz (15-20 minute read).
  4. Why it’s Important to Think About Privilege – and Why it’s Hard by Kathleen Ebbitt (15 minute read).