I was having dinner with family the other night and asked my younger cousin about how his job was going. Knowing that at his age I probably would’ve responded with a monotonous “fine”, I was surprised to hear an actual response.
“It’s good, we’ve been busy. It was pretty funny actually, today my co-worker told me I was privileged.” He scoffed.
My girlfriend and I turned to each other and exchanged a glance that said are we gonna talk about this?
I turned to his mum who looked back with an expression that said he and I will talk, but now’s not the right time.
I then wondered if I’d magically developed telepathy, or some other cool mutant power. Would super strength and an enhanced healing factor be next? Dominion over magnetism? The ability to not get distracted by anything and everything shiny I could think of?
After that brief mental record scratch, my thoughts shunted back into a groove. How would/could I approach this?
First off, an instant understanding of the complex intertwining social threads of privilege isn’t something I’d expect a white, financially supported, thin, attractive, able bodied, intellectually gifted, cis male teenager to understand straight away. Hell, I’m 28 and I’m only starting to unravel where this kind thing starts and leads. When I was 16 I was too busy worrying about why I was still a virgin to think beyond myself. I think the concept of privilege in the mainstream is still in its infancy and it’d be hypocritical of me to shit on anyone for not latching on. So this isn’t intended as a shitting-on. I’m merely recognising the stink of certain societal waste products that many of us have been unwilling to bring up. As soon as we acknowledge that there’s a smell we’re gonna start looking to point fingers before realising that we all fart. Some of ours are just more recognisable than others.
For people in culturally dominant positions of influence, it can be hard to see the concept of privilege as anything other than a direct attack. Why are people questioning you and your motives? You haven’t done anything wrong. Being born a certain way isn’t your fault. You’re right. It’s not your fault and you’re not in the wrong for not instantly knowing why the things you have give you a different outlook on how the world works. From what I’ve witnessed, read and discussed with more knowledgeable people is that privilege is often more of a blind spot. Like noticing a tiny stain on a white shirt that’s probably been there for ages. It was never an issue before you noticed it and now you can’t stop seeing it. The stain doesn’t mean that the shirt is fucked and needs to be tossed. The shirt is still fine, but maybe you want to work on that erroneous spot so you’ll feel better about wearing it again.
I get how “check your privilege” can sound like “fuck you”. That’s not what it means. I know that the usual response from the mainstream is an audible eye roll, but “check your privilege” is simply about recognising how you might have advantages in certain areas of life. It doesn’t mean that you’ve never suffered through anything. It doesn’t mean you don’t have problems. It could just mean that when you venture out into the world, you could find it easier to navigate than others do. There are a huge number of everyday occurrences that are infuriating or troubling on their own. Once a number of them stack them up, how do you think that feels?
Do security guards ever stop you to check your backpack in a retail environment?
Do you ever have to think about whether it might be easier to call your same sex lover a “friend” because you’re not sure how co-workers would think of you otherwise?
Do you ever have to put thought into which bathroom you should be walking into?
Do you ever have to consider whether or not you’ll be able to physically enter a building if it has stairs?
Do you ever go shopping, find something nice and realise that they don’t make it in your size?
Do you bring up ideas in a meeting, find yourself ignored, only to see someone else get credit for your idea when they raise it in a louder voice?
Do you ever have to give a serious thought to whether or not you can spend time with your friends, if that means spending $10 on a meal that you might need for your life’s regular upkeep?
Do you ever give a second thought to your actions and how they fit into preconceived ethnic stereotypes?
Do you ever feel seriously worried about your safety walking down the street at night?
Do people judge you for what you eat because of the way you look?
Do you ever have to deal with people treating you in a sexual manner when you’re really not in the mood, then if you don’t respond in the way they desire it’s suddenly your problem?
Do you ever have people assuming you’re less intelligent or competent simply because of how you look or speak?
Does anyone ever talk to you in a condescending fashion as a matter of course?
Do people assume you’ll always remember important anniversaries and family details because you’re better at that kind of thing?
None of this stuff happens to me on the regular. In fact, there’s a lot of stuff that never happens to me at all. There’s a lot of stuff that I would have no idea happened in our world if it didn’t happen to my friends and other acquaintances. This kind of stuff happens. To some people it happens every day. To some people it can happen multiple times a day. It can happen tons of times in a day. Every day. But not for me.
This is what privilege is. Privilege is not knowing that issues exist because they don’t exist in your direct line of sight. They don’t happen to you, so they’re not your problem. If they’re not your problem, then they’re not problems at all. They might be happening to people you know and love though. Wouldn’t you want to do something about that? It’s possible. It would involve work over time, changes in perspective bit by bit. It would involve looking around, listening, reading. Finding out ways that other people are impacted by a system that happens to work reasonably well for you. The more things you know about, the better you can try to accommodate people having trouble. The easier it’d be to understand why they’re having a harder time. The kind of things I’ve brought up are a macrocosm of the irritating, hurtful, dangerous, difficult ways that people are conscious of by the simple act of living in a society. I haven’t listed more because frankly, they’re not as apparent to me as I go about my life. I have so much to learn. I’m not gloating, I’m stating the fact. I am privileged in the way I navigate the world. My life isn’t always easy, I have problems, but I recognise that I don’t have to bear the weight of emotional armour as a coping mechanism whenever I leave the house.
If you really don’t care, then you do you. I’m not telling you you’re a shitty person. Everyone has their own baggage to deal with. I’m not your dad. If you are interested in helping, maybe start small. If you notice that someone you love or care for seems burdened, perhaps ask if you can help lighten the load. Ask what’s holding them down and if there’s anything you can do. Would venting frustrations help? Even if you’re not aware of the issues they face, sitting with them and listening is not difficult to do. You might even learn something.
Also if you’re interested, read from people who are way smarter, more aware and knowledgeable on the subject than I am. So, practically anyone who’s written about this but me.
And hey, it might help solve that strange audible eye roll you get when someone tells you to “check your privilege”. An audible eye roll sounds like a legitimate medical concern.