Understanding privilege is critical

Last week, I posted a webcomic on Facebook without thinking much of it. It was an explanation of privilege, and I was absolutely not expecting the intense argument it sparked among my friends. As an RA, I have been exposed to the idea of privilege every year during training. I had forgotten that Tech does not teach about privilege in any required class, and that many of my friends might never have even heard of the idea.

Privilege is a critical concept to social justice. Privilege is a benefit a person enjoys without having earned it. For example, as a white person, I don’t worry that a department store will accuse me of theft. My brother doesn’t have to worry about someone finding him threatening if he walks to the grocery store at night.

Privilege is not just about race, though. There is sex privilege. Men are generally more comfortable walking alone at night. They do not watch their drinks at parties. They are not, in short, forced to be hypervigilant about sexual violence. There is orientation privilege: None of the straight professional athletes have to wonder whether their careers will be affected by their sexual orientation. The list goes on: socioeconomic privilege, body privilege, mental health privilege and more.

Privilege matters because it stratifies society. It matters because it can be used for harm, or for good. The link I posted (robot-hugs.com/privilege) lists ways people can recognize their privilege and be responsible about it.

Most critical is that those in positions of privilege can use that privilege to amplify the voices of the unprivileged. This is a key idea for the concept of allies. If I call out a sexist slur, it has much less effect than if a male friend does so. On the other hand, I can act as an LGBT ally by calling out homophobia.

Given all this, I was not expecting one of my friends to write that he believed privilege to be racism against white people. In fact, I was shocked. That’s like calling feminism misandry—exactly the opposite of what it is.

This made me realize another critical component to understanding privilege: You must accept that certain kinds of knowledge can only be gained through experience.

I have argued this before: You cannot truly understand bigotry (racism, sexism, homophobia and so forth) until you have experienced it. Some of the worst arguments I have ever had were when I tried to explain sexist comments to male friends. What seemed so obviously cruel to me took so long for them to accept (once, I had to resort to citing Harvard Law Review).

In order to understand another’s experience, you must listen and empathize—and not argue or get insulted. In a similar vein, I have never experienced racism and so, when a friend explains to me how they experienced it, I listen. I do not argue; I try to understand. In such a situation, that friend’s experience and point of view are more valuable than mine.

Privilege is a complex issue. Its complexity, paired with how critical it is to progress in social justice, makes it too important to ignore in education. People shouldn’t have to take a social justice-themed class or attend Housing training to learn about it. Tech should put it into the syllabus of a required (or at least commonly taken) course, such as Ethics or GT 1000.