People…my life hasn’t always been a bed of rainbows and starshine. I’ve been through experiences that, given the choice, I would have much rather skipped. I’ve had to deal with people doing things to me that weren’t ethical, legal, or fair. I’ve had to work hard to get what I want in life. But, and here’s the rub, I still benefit from a lot of privilege.
Privilege is defined as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.” And that’s actually a pretty accurate summation of it. Due to the way that our society is structured, there are a lot of advantages, immunities and special rights that we give to certain groups of people. If you want a really great example of how privilege often manifests, please read this amazing comic by The Pencilsword on a Plate. It'll take you about a minute and it's worth your time.
When we’re confronted with this information, with the knowledge that we have these immunities, advantages and special rights, we all have a tendency to react in a pretty predictable way.
We become angry and defensive.
We often react like it’s a personal attack. For instance, if someone says to me “You have white privilege”, I want to say “That’s bullshit. My life is hard. You have no idea what my life has been like. How dare you tell me that I’m fucking lucky to be white! White has nothing to do with everything I’ve achieved!”
But I’d be wrong. Being white may not take away from the difficult things I’ve experienced in my life, but it’s probably ensured that my life hasn’t been more difficult. When I think about the things that I consider hardships in my life, there isn’t a single one that would have been made easier by being a person of colour.
The problem with privilege is that often we use the word to refer to special things that are given to people. So when someone tells us we’re privileged, we have a look around at our life and go “Where? Where is all this fucking privilege I keep hearing about? Because all I see is a pile of laundry I need to do, some bills I haven’t paid and a few health issues I keep putting off getting checked out.”
We look at our lives as though if we were privileged there’d be something extra there. Instead, we need to be looking at our lives and seeing all the things that aren't there. As a white person, I can look around and go “Oh, I love the lack of systemic racism in here”, as an able-bodied person I can say “Oh, I love having access to all the places with the things that I like,” and as a non-indigenous person I can look around and go "Oh my! All of this culture and heritage I still have left, that totally wasn't systematically stripped away from me, how nice!"
If you’re not sure what kinds of privilege you enjoy, try playing a game of privilege bingo. Look at each tile and imagine how your life would be different if you weren’t one of these things.
So let's say, hypothetically that you've accepted that you have certain privileges. Let's say that you've looked at the world around you and realised that it is in fact harder out there for people other than yourself, through no fault of their own. So what are you expected to do about it? Well, here's a start.
STEP ONE: LISTEN
Once you’ve accepted that you have certain advantages in this world, what do you do with that information? When I acknowledge that I have white privilege it means that I need to listen to the experiences of people of colour. It means that I need to hear what they have to say, and not disagree with them, even if it doesn’t match my experience.
If someone in a wheelchair is telling me that there aren’t enough ramps in the world, I don’t then get to say “Sure there are! I feel like they’re everywhere.” Because stairs aren’t a barrier to me, so I’m not going to notice them in the same way. I might see half a dozen ramps in a day, but I’m not going to notice the hundreds of buildings without them. Whereas to someone for whom stairs are effectively a “DO NOT ENTER” sign, the lack of accessibility into buildings becomes a major factor in their life. You don't get to tell them that they have everything they need.
Listening means that when someone tells you about their situation, you need to refrain from telling them they're wrong. Because you're not living their life. Because for most people without privilege, that's the one thing no one ever takes the time do. Just listen. Hear their story. Hear their experience. And if you listen, without simply waiting for a break in the conversation to interject with your own opinion, you might be surprised about what you learn.
STEP TWO: ACCEPT PEOPLE’S PREFERENCES
When you’re confronted with other people’s experiences, it’s important to remember that no two people will have had the same experience. So you might be one of those people who has black friends, or gay friends, or some of your best friends might be women! And those people might have told you that it’s okay to use racial slurs, that it’s okay to call them “faggot” or “dyke”, or you might have been told that rape jokes are hilarious. And then when you’re confronted with someone telling you that these things aren’t okay, you might be tempted to argue. You might be tempted to point out that some of your best friends (who are totally black) said that you’re cool to use the n-word. But you need to understand that while some people might have reclaimed words or experiences, other people are still going to be hurt by them, and others are far enough removed from the history of certain words that they might have never been affected by them. But that doesn’t mean you can treat everyone the same way.
I grew up around a lot of transport workers from Italian and Greek backgrounds and everyone in the business would affectionately refer to them as “wogs”, and they would encourage us to do so. To the point that one of them even paid to have his truck customised with the moniker right across the hood. I grew up thinking that it was friendly term, kind of like calling a white Australian a “skip”. But when I met a woman who told me that this was offensive, that it deeply hurt her and that she grew up being called this in the schoolyard, I stopped using the term. Because her experience was different. And you don’t really have to right to disagree with someone when they’re telling you what they do and don’t like being called.
Imagine if someone walked up to you and said “Hey FatFuck” and you were like “That’s not actually my name and I’d prefer it if you didn’t call me that”, and they reply “Yeah but you’re a dude and my brother is a dude and he loves being called FatFuck.” And then they spent the next ten years calling you “FatFuck” and giving you shit for being “politically correct about your own name”, and campaigning for people everywhere to be able to call you “FatFuck”. You’d probably be pretty pissed. So even if you have friends, or celebrity role models, or a family member who has said “Yeah, go to town”, remember that their experience isn’t going to match up with everyone you meet.
STEP THREE: UNDERSTAND THAT PEOPLE WILL BE ANGRY
Look at your life and find an area that you don’t have privilege in. Maybe you don’t have thin privilege, or aesthetic-privilege, or financial-privilege. And now think about how frustrating it would be for someone to tell you that you’re wrong about that one aspect of your life.
If you’re trying to explain how hard it can be to save up enough money to buy a house, and someone with a trust fund is saying “Well you’re just not being financially responsible. Banks give away money all the time. Clearly you're doing something wrong” you’re going to start to feel pretty fucking frustrated. You might get angry. And there’s nothing worse than getting angry, because then people start to use that anger against you.
“Why are lesbians always so angry?”, “Why are trans-women so aggressive?” “I don’t understand why black people are so angry,” and “I can’t take women seriously, they take all this stuff so personally, they get hysterical.”
When people start telling you that you’re doing life wrong, that you’ve been subject to no disadvantage, and that you’re just not trying hard enough; it’s pretty fucking easy to get angry. And you’ll be judged for that anger, while everyone else is debating you from a purely academic standpoint. Because it’s not their lives that are being affected.
STEP FOUR: UNDERSTAND THE ROLE YOUR OPINION PLAYS
A lot of the time when I have a depressive episode, well meaning people will try and tell me that my life “could be worse” and that I should “think about the starving children in Africa.” This is problematic, because it implies that as long as there's someone worse off than you, you can never be sad. Which means literally only the most miserable, shat upon, starving orphan in a war-zone has the right to feel sad.
It might seem like having privilege is kind of like that. It might seem like if you’re a wealthy, attractive, straight, white, cis, able-bodied, neurotypical male then you no longer have any right to ever complain about your life. This is spectacularly not the case. You have every right to complain about your life! It’s probably shit. I’m not going to lie, having all that privilege sounds boring as fuck. So don't ever think that your privilege is a form of censorship. It's not. Complain away!
What it does mean though, is that you don’t get to tell other people that their life isn’t as hard as yours. It means that when someone tells you that there aren’t enough ramps, you have to acknowledge that you’re not in a place to tell them they’re wrong. It means that if a woman tells you she’s been sexually harassed in her workplace, you don’t get to tell her that it’s not a gendered issue. When a person of colour gets looked over for job after job, you don’t get to tell them that it’s not a racial issue. It means listening to the experiences of people who have lived lives you never will.
It can be difficult to moderate your opinions in discussions of privilege. We live in a society where we believe our opinions are sacrosanct and they deserve to be retweeted, reposted and have a thousand likes every time we throw them out there. But sometimes you need to acknowledge that your experience of situations is just going to be different. If you’re a man talking to a woman about sexism, you might want to argue that you’ve literally never seen sexism happen. But you first need to acknowledge that your experience isn’t going to be the best indicator for that. Take on board what the other person is saying before asking yourself if your experience is really going to be an accurate representation of a situation.
And if you want to feel engaged in the conversation, find a way to use your voice to support the person you're talking to. You might not have lived what they have, but that doesn't mean you can't acknowledge how hurtful, or painful, or frustrating their experience was for them.
STEP FIVE: USE YOUR PRIVILEGE FOR GOOD
For the love of fuck, talk about it! There are so many people with so much privilege who refuse to speak about it, because they feel that just because they’ve internally acknowledged their advantages in life, that’s enough. Trust me, it’s not. Much as I hate to admit it, people listen so much more when it’s a white person talking about rights for people of colour. People listen harder when it’s a man talking about feminism. People care when it’s a thin person talking about fat-shaming. Because our society is built to acknowledge the opinions of the advantaged over everyone else. The more privilege you have, the more weight your opinion carries. As a woman, when I talk about feminism people assume I’m just some hysterical female with a victim complex. But when my male partner talks about feminism, when he pulls people up on shitty sexist jokes, or calls out misogyny when he sees it, other men will listen to him. Because he’s one of them. He has their respect.
So if you have privilege, use it. Listen to the experiences of the people around you, hear what they’re telling you, and then call out other people on their bullshit. And I don’t mean if you’re a dude you should show up at a SlutWalk and tell all the women there how to feminist. I mean do it in your spaces. Bring attention to issues in the places where your opinion carries weight. Speak up in spaces where you can help to be an agent for change. Work in a an all-male office? Call out shitty sexist jokes. Go to a school surrounded by white kids? Pull people up on racist statements. Family dinner is full of able bodied people? Start a conversation about the lack of funding for people with disabilities.
STEP SIX: CHANGE THE WORLD
We’re all privileged in some way. And it’s important to acknowledge our privilege, so that we can continue to build a society that doesn't disadvantage people without that privilege. It’s important to stop becoming aggressive and defensive when someone highlights the advantages we have in our lives. They’re not saying we’re bad people. They’re helping us to understand that life is different, and more difficult for other people. That’s not something we get to be personally offended by.
We need to recognise that our society does not treat all people equally. We need to take steps to try and make the world a fairer place for people that didn’t have the same advantages we did. Because if we don’t, we’re only handicapping ourselves. We’re ignoring the resources and innovations of the majority of the population when all we focus on is one privileged sector of society. Let’s start making a better world, by acknowledging our privilege and using it in the best possible ways.
That is all.
You may go now.