When it comes to concept of privilege, there seems to be this common stumbling block for people who are well-meaning and want to be social justice allies of some sort or another. When someone reaches the point of acknowledging their privilege (that is to say, whenever someone is made to realize that they have had advantages in life due to something beyond their control, such as their race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, body type, the socio-economic status of their parents, or whatever else), they often founder as to what to do with this knowledge, and what their next steps are.
Commonly, the refrain from someone who has their privilege pointed out to them is “So, what, then? Should I feel guilty about being [white/thin/straight/etc.]?” The answer to this question is, of course, no. Feeling sorry for your advantages in life does no one any good. But being aware of your privilege is important for a whole host of reasons. And there are things you can do with your awareness of your privilege.
Learn not to universalize your experience
One of the mistakes that is frequently made by people who are unaware of the ways in which they are societally privileged is the universalization of their experience. Often times you will see people insisting that because they were able to get to where they are today by following x path (usually denoted by “hard work” and higher education), everyone should be able to do the same. But if you dig into the narratives of people making these claims, you will often find that their success depends as much on factors outside of their control as on their hard work and ambition. In fact, one of the major aspects as any form of privilege is that one isn’t forced to face up to the ways in which one’s privileged identity provides advantages (whereas members of marginalized groups can’t *not* see all of the ways in which their lives are harder because of their marginalization.)
So, for instance, if someone wins scholarship for their undergraduate studies, this is a great accomplishment of which they should be very proud. But we also need to be aware that people who attend schools in richer areas, or those who attend private high schools, will have an easier time getting these scholarships than people whose schools are underfunded and understaffed. I technically got a “free” ride in my undergrad, actually, but I am fully aware that this is as much due to the fact that my parents paid (out the nose) for me to go a prestigious private high school as it is because of my academic prowess. I am really good at school, but that alone would not have been enough.
People often also discount factors like the fact that they got their job through someone they knew, or their parents knew, or their friend’s parents knew. People from higher socio-economic backgrounds generally have more and better connections to well-paying industries, and this make sit easier for them than for even the smartest, most hard-working person from a working-class background to break into their chosen field.
Before suggesting that someone else could have done what do did, or that your accomplishments are attainable by another person by the same route you took, it is vital that you seriously interrogate the narrative you tell about your success and how it was achieved. If you are white, male, straight, thin, or from a middle- or higher class background, chances are you have some advantages that are not available to everyone.
Develop an awareness of other people’s experiences
Once you are aware that not everyone experience the world in the same ways you do, it is important to become familiar with the ways (both general and specific) in which their experiences differ from your own. Try to put yourself in other people’s shoes, and consider how your life might be different if you faced the barriers and challenges they have. Understand that these barriers are outside of their control (just as your privilege is often outside of yours). Work on having compassion for people whose lives are different from yours. And learn to be as frustrated by the barriers they face as you would be if you had to deal with them yourself. Just because it doesn’t effect you doesn’t mean it’s not vitally important to make changes.
Most people have intersecting areas of privilege and marginalization within their own identities – make an explicit effort to develop a greater understanding of the kinds of marginalization that you don’t personally face. If you’re white, educate yourself on racial politics and white privilege. If you’re straight, examine the ways in which it is easier for you to move through the world with your partner(s).
And while you’re at it: stop telling people with different experiences than yours that they are over-reacting. You don’t know what their life is like, and you don’t know how big of a deal certain kinds of microaggressions can be, because you don’t know how often or how many times this person has bumped up against a particular barrier or attitude. If you think someone is over-reacting to something, make a point of educating yourself about the issue in question before coming to any conclusions.
Help make “invisible” minorities more visible
Some marginalized identities are less visible than others. Race and gender are very often all-too-visible, and impossible to escape from in a way that makes the day-to-day lived experiences of women and people of color exhausting.
Other identities (those of transgender people, or queer folks, asexual people, or people with mental illnesses or physical disabilities that don’t have obvious outward manifestations, etc.) are harder to see. The challenges raised by living with these identities are different from those of more visible sources of marginalization. Thus, people who are privileged on any of these counts (be they cisgender, normatively abled, straight, or neurotypical) have a harder time remembering that their experiences on these grounds are not universal.
Make an effort to be more careful in the way you talk about yourself and your experiences, as well as the world around you. And don’t assume you know what a person’s experiences are like just by looking at them.
So, for instance, don’t use the word “couples” to refer only to heterosexual couples. If you are talking only about straight couples for some reason, specify that. Don’t talk about “sex” as if it necessarily involves one person with a penis, and one with a vulva.
Try to be aware that although there is a great deal of overlap “women” and “people with vulvas” are not actually the same group of people. Not all women have vulvas, and not all people with vulvas are women. Be aware of which group you are actually talking about, and use your language deliberately to not conflate these concepts. The group of people who should be getting regular PAP smears is “people with vulvas”; the group of people who are most likely to have to deal with sexual harassment is “women”.
Don’t assume that because you can do something easily, that everyone should be able to that thing easily. We all have different abilities.
Let the way you talk about the world remind the people around you that we are not all the same, and that things are more complicated than the mainstream narratives often allow for.
Use your privilege for the greater good, rather than your own good
A lot of the time, people benefit from the various privileges bestowed by their identities regardless of what they do. Many companies target their products at specific groups of people, and white middle-class straight folks will find that the world overwhelming tries to create things that will fit into their lifestyle and fulfill their needs. And individuals can’t do a whole lot to change this fact, nor do I think that refusing to buy products that are designed for one’s own demographic is a good idea. If the product is right for your needs, buy it. It’s not really your fault if most products are targeted at you.
Sometimes, people do actively choose to exercise their privilege, without even necessarily realizing that they are doing so. One of the commonly cited facets of male privilege is the ability to speak one’s mind without automatically being considered overbearing, (i.e. a “shrew” or a “bitch”). This means in general that men are more likely to speak up in any conflict or decision-making situation (because women have learned it is not worth the effort), and that when they do, their ideas are more likely to be given real consideration.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that in order to be good allies, that men should never speak their mind. In fact, the reason why this kind of privilege often goes unnoticed is that fundamentally, we understand that anyone should be able to speak their mind and have their perspective considered. This is not something that men should be required to give up. It is, however, something that you can actively work at *giving* to those who do not have this privilege. IF you are a man in a discussion with a mixed-sex group of people, you should actively be aware of the ways in which different people are contributing, and the ways in which their contributions are being treated. Do your best to make space for women’s ideas and perspectives, invite to engage more actively in the discussion and try to provide a counterweight if someone else in the group tries to write them off as overly-emotional, or hysterical, or bitchy. Use your privilege, in other words, to help other people’s ideas be heard.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t criticize the contributions of women, or of people of color, or any other marginalized group to which you do not belong. Just use your awareness of the normal barriers faced by these people, and make sure that your criticisms of their ideas are based on the content of their perspective, and not based on stereotypes of that group (as over-emotional, or overly aggressive, or whatever).
Let your privilege be a tool you use to help reduce the marginalization experienced by those who are less privileged than you. You can do it, I promise.