The Winter holidays have been a perfect opportunity to catch up with friends, and with great friends come great chats. Conversations always inspire me, and when I was nattering with someone about some training they’d received on the subject of privilege, it made me want to tap out some thoughts on it.
What is it? What isn’t it? And why is it so hard to talk about?
So what does privilege really mean?
There are a few definitions with slightly different nuances, but one that strikes me as pretty accurate is this:
“A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.”
The word “immunity” is an important one here. It makes is clear that privilege is not a particular attribute, but rather a protection against something damaging.
In the context of racial equality, you’re perhaps familiar with the term “white privilege”. This is the absence of barriers that people of colour often face due to their ethnicity. For example, in general, white people are less likely to face the barriers of under-representation in certain industries such as teaching or law. They’re less likely to struggle to find a hairdresser on a UK high street. Less likely to be perceived to be loud aggressive, threatening or even criminal on first sight. They’re less likely to be verbally or physically attacked due to their ethnicity. To be arrested. To be more heavily punished by the police in the case of arrest or complaint. To die in childbirth. The list could go on – from the minor to the major.
Alongside the basic “Black vs white” ethnic privilege is colourism. Something I’m conscious of as a fair skinned mixed-race woman. The closer to “whiteness” people are, the more privilege they own. I may not be white, but I’m used to seeing images of women with my ethnic mix in fashion magazines. I’m unlikely to be called an offensive racial slur. I’m perceived to be less threatening than my darker skinned sisters.
Add intersectionality into the mix and it’s easy to become quite overwhelmed by the multi-layers of privilege that exists in society. For example, If you’re a Black trans person, you can expect many more barriers than a cis Back person, or a white trans person. If you’re a Black woman, you can expect to suffer from both the gender pay gap and ethnicity pay gap (statistics show you’re likely to be paid less than both your male and your white counterparts by 14% and 26% respectively).
But what isn’t it?
It’s really important for me to explain what privilege isn’t. Because assumptions make for this to be a hard topic for many people to talk about. It isn’t:
- A judgement
- An insult
- About your level of “poshness”
- An indication on how hard you work
- Something to be ashamed of
But it can often feel this way for those of us who hold privilege. We can often feel guilty, even though our privilege is out of our control.
Why is it so emotive?
It’s easy to associate the term privilege with something negative, and unfortunately it’s often associated with racism, homophobia, mysogyny. It makes people feel guilty for things they can’t control. It can make them feel like others think they’ve been handed their achievements on a plate, undermining their hard work and skills. It causes people to feel defensive, understandably, because no-one wants to be associated with these things.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to turn “privilege” into a word of empowerment?
Wouldn’t it be great to think about our privilege as something positive. Qualities that we inherently possess that give us the power to make a difference in the world. Things that enable us to use our position to lift others?
Because actually, that’s what it is?
We all have strengths, skills, personal qualities and places in the world that we can use for good. It doesn’t have to be about about division, it can be about allyship, solidarity and bringing people together, as long as it’s recognised and utilised.
So here’s what I suggest
If you’re looking for ways to harness your own privilege-power, here are my words of advice.
Get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Understand your own privileges and own them.
Think beyond yourself – this isn’t about you. It’s about the wider world and bridging the gap between its inequalities.
As it’s New Year, make a resolution to use yours. Start small (have a look at one of my earlier blogs, “The Circle of Influence”) and make a start.
Thank you in advance. I’m excited about how we can turn this polarising word into one of power and progress.
And thank you for being here. Here’s to 2023 and more positive changes in the world.