Understand Your Privilege
When I entered graduate school, we did an exercise to demonstrate privilege within our cohort. We began by standing in a straight line, holding hands with one another. Our shoulders pressed together, trying to accommodate seventy bodies between two walls. Our professor began to read out statements, and if the statement was “true” to our experience, we stepped forward. If not, we were asked to step backwards.
Statements like, “I grew up in a household with two heterosexual parents,” or “I never went to bed hungry” were spoken into the room, one after another. I stepped forward. The woman standing next to me – a kind, sparkly-eyed Black woman of about 50 – often stepped back. After a while our arms stretched out, trying to stay connected, but the distance between us had grown so big that we struggled to hold onto one another’s hands.
My professor read out, “If you grew up in a home with more than 50 books, step forward.” I was shocked to see a large portion of the room step back. I stepped forward with tears building in my eyes. I thought back to my childhood room, filled with books. Of the countless nights my parents had read me to sleep…
At HAI, our mission statement reads, “The Human Awareness Institute cultivates thriving and inclusive global communities where people live in dignity, respect, understanding, trust, kindness, compassion, reverence, honesty, and love.” But what does it mean to create an inclusive global community?
How do we create an inclusive community, much less an inclusive organization, in the face of privilege? And what does privilege really mean? How does privilege intersect with racism? In her article “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peggy McIntosh defines privilege as being free to enjoy special rights or immunities that are not granted to others.
McIntosh writes: “In my class and place, I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never as an invisible system conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.”
We’ve pulled together a partial list of the societal conditions that McIntosh describes which perpetuate privilege and contribute to systemic racism; these are invisible privileges enjoyed by the majority. Privilege is something that many of us have inherited. And it is our responsibility take action to dismantle the far-reaching, detrimental effects of systemic racism.
But how do you know if you’re privileged? And what can you do about it? We recommend that you take a moment with each of these bullet points and consider whether they apply to your life.
What Does Privilege Look Like?
Privilege of perception:
- I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race [or gender identity, or sexual orientation, or biological sex].
- Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color to not work against the appearance of my financial stability.
- I can dress in second hand clothes without people attributing this choice to poverty [or gender identity, or sexual orientation, or biological sex].
- I can speak in public without putting my race on trial [or gender identity, or sexual orientation, or biological sex].
- I can speak clearly and not be singled out as “articulate” as if the rest of my race or gender isn’t.
- I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.
- I can get angry and not be seen as scary or inherently violent / mean.
- I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect (or claim) that I got it because of my race.
- I can get accepted to a prestigious university and not have my peers tell me that I “took their spot.”
Privilege of safety:
- I can go shopping alone in my own neighborhood, assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
- If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
- I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race [or gender identity, or sexual orientation, or biological sex] cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
- I can trust that if I call on cops to help me, I will not be falsely accused of a crime.
- I have never felt traumatized by a comment that belittles and undermines me based on my race [or gender identity, or sexual orientation, or biological sex].
- I do not have to wonder whether going for a jog around my neighborhood will be seen as threatening or suspicious.
- I do not fear that a stranger will physically attack me or shame me in public based on the color of my skin tone [or gender identity, or sexual orientation, or biological sex].
- I do not have to worry that, if I am attacked or sexually harassed, I won’t be believed by authorities.
Privilege of autonomy:
- I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another person’s voice because my own success or survival does not depend on my ability to understand the viewpoint of someone else.
- I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of Black, Indigenous or Persons of Color, who constitute the world’s majority, without feeling loss or penalty for my ignorance.
- I have been raised to believe that my accomplishments and successes are due to my hard work, even though I have been given countless advantages in my life that are unrelated to my personal skill or determination.
- I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life; institutional and social.
- I often assume that my experience or world-view is “natural” or “common.”
- I was taught in school to recognize the significance of my “identity” because my real-life experiences do not make my race [or gender identity, or sexual orientation, or biological sex] salient.
Privilege of choice
- If I need to move, I can be confident that I’ll be able to rent or purchase a home that I can afford, in an area that I would want to live in.
- I can consider many choices for myself (social, political, educational or professional) without wondering whether a person of my race [or gender identity, or sexual orientation, or biological sex] would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.
- I can easily choose make-up or bandages in “flesh” color and have it match my skin tone.
- I can make choices for myself without wondering how others will perceive my choice based on an aspect of my identity.
- I feel free to make choices about who I love, where I live, which car I drive, etc. and I expect that others will not question me.
Privilege of acknowledgment:
- I can be sure that my children will be given educational materials in school that acknowledge and celebrate the existence of their race [gender identity, biological sex and sexual orientation].
- I have been taught that the people who built my national heritage or “civilization” are people who look like me [or share my gender identity, sexual orientation, or biological sex]. I am not expected to know the stories of other groups.
- I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented.
- I can go into a supermarket and find the staple foods that fit with my cultural traditions.
- I can go into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
- I can easily watch movies, buy postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, etc. featuring people of my race [or gender identity, sexual orientation, or ability].
- I can see myself in my role models.
- I can go home from most places of social activity and feel that I belonged there – rather than feel isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, or held at a distance or feared.
Developing our Sensitivity
Developing sensitivity to one’s own privilege starts with remembering that “not everyone is like me.” Race, gender, and identity are all spectrums, shades of gray, not either/or, heads or tails. When we assume polarity – male or female, gay or straight, black or white, disabled or abled, etc. – it is confusing, hurtful, or offensive. Not to mention, inaccurate.
How do we begin to address systemic oppression in our communities? We begin by taking thoughtful steps towards ensuring that all spaces are safer and more inclusive for everyone. To get you started…
Be present to the person in front of you. Listen. Notice when you talk over others and re-think taking up the space.
Notice and recognize your own story about people who are different from you. Work to create alternative narratives. Resist using your interactions to further your own negative story about someone based on their identity.
Trust that people will ask for what they want – what they want to be called, what they want to talk about, what they want you to know. Don’t assume that different means less-than or victim, or needing you to somehow rescue or protect.
Continue to educate yourself about systemic racism and other forms of oppression. Understanding how our systems perpetuate a “better than” mentality across different groups will help you to see the water you swim in, and make it easier for you to choose something different.
Understanding your privilege is not a privilege. It’s a moral and social obligation to your fellow human beings. And there’s no better time to start than now.
About the Author: Kate Gillispie is the Marketing Director for the Human Awareness Institute and co-host of May I Have This Dance, a podcast about love, intimacy, and sexuality. Find the podcast by searching for ‘May I Have This Dance‘ on iTunes, Google Podcasts, or wherever else you find your podcasts. You can also join our active community on Facebook.
The Human Awareness Institute (HAI) holds a bold vision of a world where people live in dignity, respect, understanding, trust, kindness, compassion, reverence, honesty and love. We offer many online and in-person workshops designed to support you on your journey towards greater love and connection in your life. We hope to see you soon!