Before We Begin... A Primer On Privilege

The moment I came up with this series of blog posts, I knew I was going to have to devote one of these posts to the discussion below. The conversation about privilege is incredibly fraught with misunderstandings and false assumptions, which are bound to raise their head amongst even the most openminded and charitable readers if they aren’t addressed - something I know from personal experience, having had to exorcise these demons myself. With that in mind, allow me to describe what I’ll mean when I talk about privilege for the next seven weeks, and dispel a common misconception or two about it.

When I say that I benefit from white privilege, I don’t mean that my life has necessarily always been easy (though for the most part, I must admit that it has). What I mean is that my skin color has never made my life harder. Similarly, when I say I benefit from male privilege, I simply mean that my biological sex has never made my life harder. The same goes for sexual orientation (being straight has never made my life more difficult) and being cisgender (the fact that my gender identity matches the sex I was assigned at birth has never made my life harder. Once again, this does not mean that I’m arguing that lives of all white, or male, or straight, or cisgendered people have been easy. Of course they haven’t. But there have been, undeniably, certain privileges that I, and all others who fall into those demographics, have benefited from simply because of how we were born

This belief, that to acknowledge and discuss privilege is to claim that life has been easy for all for its beneficiaries, is a frustratingly persistent one (so much so, in fact, that a reasonable question can be asked as to whether it’s really a misunderstanding, or rather a way for people who don’t want to have a conversation about privilege for various reasons to distract from it). Another belief that’s just as frustratingly common is that to point out the privilege one benefits from is to somehow accuse them of being a bad person, or being racist, or homophobic or similar. Nothing, of course, can be further from the truth. Indeed, systems of privilege are so insidious in large part because of the way that good people can be caught up and a part of them without ever realizing it, that they benefit us at the expense of others no matter how desperately we might wish that they didn’t.

And that misunderstanding, ironically, can itself an example of privilege. The people who are able to ignore something are never those who are impacted for the worse by it, but rather those who benefit from it or are not affected at all. This is true not just of privilege as a broader collection of systems itself, but also of things like racism, sexism, climate change, and the like. Those of privilege are the ones who can afford to either ignore it completely or - accidentally or not - hold misconceptions about it. Those who are the victims of systems of privilege are never allowed to be unaware of them, because that can, at any moment, bring suffering down upon them. That’s why these discussions about our discussions of privilege are so important, and why these discussions are so often a litmus test for who is willing to engage with these questions and who is only too happy to continue benefiting from the misfortunes of other races, ethnicities, orientations, and more. Because let’s get one thing straight: benefiting from privilege does not make you some kind of monster or bad person. Simply being privileged is not an indictment of you, nor is misunderstanding some of these things. But learning about privilege and then choosing to continue to ignore it or holding fast to false beliefs that make your life easier? That says something about you. And it’s not something good.

With excitement and optimism,