“Privilege,” an often maligned and misunderstood term, is used to describe the various kinds of subtle benefits that a person gains from the society around them that are out of their control. A white person, for instance, has white privilege; this doesn’t mean that life is automatically easy for them, and it doesn’t mean that a poor white person is necessarily worse off than a rich black person. It’s simply a way of pointing out real cultural favoritism that plays a role in everyone’s everyday interactions.
Privilege isn’t a competition, but if it were, I would be winning. Being white, male, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, educated, and financially secure, my chances of succeeding in life are far, far better than most others on the planet. Admitting this is the first step in the process of living a more ethical life in light of those advantages.
When many privileged people hear others talk about them, they instinctively want to shut out all dialogue and insist that everyone is overreacting. But that reaction is understandable; this is often the first time people have been forced to grapple with the idea that they’ve had advantages and benefits their whole lives that they never even noticed.
Privilege is insidious, subtle, and most of all addictive. It’s hard to recognize something you’ve had and benefited from for so long. So like with any potentially addictive substance, it can help to have a multi-step process for how to best use it. As you’ll see, I’m somewhere along this journey myself. It’s one that nearly every single person alive has to make. No matter who you are, you are likely privileged in some way. Let’s talk about how to use it to help others.
Step 1: Open your mind
The most difficult step is the first one: You have to be willing to consider when some form of privilege may be affecting you. Little things, like my white friends and I, never having been written a ticket when pulled over, didn’t even register until a black friend told me he’d been written up every single time. But the more I kept my eyes open, the more I began to realize how different my experience is from those who don’t have certain physical and social features that I have.
Step 2: Remember that no one is privilege free
Well, almost no one. But if you’re privileged in even one respect, you’re not free from criticism despite any other disadvantages you may have. Many critics rolled their eyes when Roland Emmerich’s 2015 film “Stonewall” whitewashed the historic chapter in gay rights by reducing the people of color in the story to supporting roles, and using a gay white man as the lead. Tossing in one dimension of non-privilege (being gay) doesn’t make for a representational character. This is where the concept of “intersectionality,” or where different kinds of privilege interact, often plays a role.
Step 3: Don’t hate yourself
This might be the most important thing to remember while reflecting on privilege. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, and to internalize the anger and pain you see around you, feeling as though you have to apologize to other people just for being who you are. Don’t fall into that trap, and don’t let the extremists pull you into thinking that way.
Constantly mocking or insulting a group you belong to just because it has a place of power doesn’t actually help minority groups. If you’re serious about doing the most good, don’t obsess over having unfair advantages; use those advantages to help others.
Step 4: Listen
Alright, so you’ve drank the Kool-Aid, realizing that you almost certainly have some attribute that gives you an unearned advantage over others. Before you start running off to parties to inform women and people of color how oppressed they are, keep one thing in mind: They’re the ones actually feeling the struggle, not you. The most important tool you have at your disposal is your ears, so use them frequently and liberally. Discussions about socio-economic and civil rights issues are often dominated by those already in power, those who aren’t the ones actually feeling the effects of the issues they’re arguing about.
Lend your skills and power to those who have something to say, but no voice with which to say it. Because the ultimate irony is that even white people dominate the discussion about the problems white people cause, and men dominate discussions about issues like abortion and female health care. Movies like “Stonewall” show that even when we’re making a movie about queer people and people of color, we don’t give them the agency to fight those issues on their own terms: It absolutely has to be a white man fighting for them. If Emmerich could have found a way to make the protagonist straight, I’m sure he would have.
Step 5: Act
Get involved. If you’re reading this there’s a decent chance you’re a student at the UW or another university, which means there are surely organizations and offices for minority groups that you can talk to. It can be something as easy and entertaining as going to an event put on by one of those groups, or something much more involved like joining other students to lobby at your state legislature.
The great thing about volunteering is that you can adjust it to fit within your schedule. We can’t give 100 percent to the issues around us — we each have to work and support ourselves first — but almost everyone can give a little bit.
Step 6: Don’t get complacent
Being a good person is a journey, not a destination. That’s why it’s important to never feel “done” with learning and doing more about the injustices in the world around you. Don’t burn yourself out refining your knowledge, but remember that at every step of the process, people thought they were done.
It took leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X to show Americans that abolishing slavery wasn’t enough. It will take leaders today and tomorrow to take us even further; in issues spanning race, sex, gender, sexuality, and areas none of us can yet imagine. This journey is one that we all need to make.
Keep an open mind and have a caring heart, listen more than you speak, and you’ll be well on your way.
Reach writer Alex Bruell