Thinking about Privilege

content: reflection on own privilege, childhood, and the problems with hierarchies of oppression and homogenizing marginalized groups.

So much of privilege is really hard to conceptualize because it’s intrinsic to our lived experience. It occurred to me today how privileged I am as I brushed my teeth and remembered being 5 years old and learning how to brush my own teeth.

I challenge you to think about it too.  What do you remember learning before you were 5 years old?

I remember being terrified of starting school not knowing English. I remember struggling to learn how to read and my dad patiently working through a German workbook with me while I did English workbooks in school. I remember being taught how to clean my teeth thoroughly and how much fun it was to see exactly where I missed spots and how to fix them.

There are kids who right now are learning a nursery rhyme to teach them not to pick up used needles off the streets. There are kids who right now are learning how to hide from soldiers and bombs. There are kids learning to pick fruit in the fields.

These are comparisons that inspire pity and horror in our hearts, but do they inspire action?  This is why I care about social justice, the injustices in the world are too terrible for me to ignore.  What about other injustices?  What about more subtle differences that make us uncomfortable to think about?  And when we approach these topics, what is our own driving motivation?  Pity and empathy are very different motivators.

I took a fieldtrip I took to the police station when I was a kid.  We learned how and when to call 911 and to ask police for help.  Meanwhile black parents are teaching their kids how to try to avoid being killed.  Meanwhile undocumented parents are teaching their kids not to get fingerprinted, or to get caught breaking even a minor rule, because it could mean deportation (and incarceration, and abuse, and violence in countries of origin).  These differences stay with us, regardless of education, or visible differences in color and class.

I share a similar level of education, similar goals and experiences with my partner, while I was learning to brush my teeth, was learning to stay away from wild dogs and how to inject insulin.  We share a great deal, but our experiences of privilege and discrimination differ and so do the challenges we face.

Often when people hear they have privilege, they feel defensive, as if they are being accused of not experiencing challenges.  This is not what it means to have privilege.  When we talk about privilege in a social justice context, or tell someone they need to be aware of their own privilege, we mean that they do not share in a particular experience.  Often one that is hard to label because systemic barriers can be subtle or invisible to people who don’t experience them.

When we talk about oppression, we aren’t just talking about barriers, we are talking about barriers that occur because of systems of power, and that they affect people differently, even within one group.  Not being the target of a particular structure is a privilege, and doesn’t mean exemption from all barriers.  It means that when it comes to this particular challenge, we need to listen to the people who face that problem.  Sometimes even inside these groups people are not given space to voice a different experience.  This is a shame, when prejudices seek to do the same by homogenizing a group.  I’ve seen allies stand up for someone who was being silenced by a group they belonged to; sometimes being a respectful participant means creating space for other people.

The object of recognizing these different experiences, even within the same group, isn’t to make a comparison.  When people try to compare the degree to which they are marginalized, they hurt their own communities, homogenize those experiences, and suggest that oppression requires some comparative measure of severity.  All oppression comes from the same power systems that hurt all of us in some way.  Understanding that we are all affected, means we all have a stake in dismantling the systems of power and must do so in our own communities.  Understanding we are all affected differently allows us to us to sympathize and respect differences in how we deal with what we face.



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