“Privilege” is a word you’ll hear often in social justice spaces, both offline and online.
Some people understand the concept easily.
I am writing this in English. You are able to read it. Congrats - we are both privileged.
Others – and I was like this – find the concept confusing and need a little more help.
Before we get started, I want to clarify that this blog is not entirely comprehensive. That is to say, it’s not going to explain everything there is to know about privilege. But it’ll give you a good foundation on the basics.
Think of privilege not as a single lesson, but as a field of study. To truly understand privilege, we must keep reading, learning, and thinking critically.
We can define privilege as a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group.
Society grants privilege to people because of certain aspects of their identity. Aspects of a person’s identity can include race, class, gender, sexual orientation, language, geographical location, ability, and religion, to name a few.
Because privilege is normalized, it can be challenging to recognize at first. Recognizing and addressing your own privilege will be a constant process that will require a great deal of reflection and adaptation over time.
Addressing privilege is usually uncomfortable and you may experience a range of emotions from defensiveness and anger to guilt and defeat. As difficult as it may be, it is important that you commit to recognizing and addressing your own privilege.
Because privilege in so uncomfortable, discussing privilege can often bring about “hot” moments in the surroundings.
Privilege, simply put, is societally granted, unearned advantages accorded to some people and not others. Generally, when we talk about privilege, we are referring to systemic or structural advantages that impact people based on identity factors such as race, gender, sex, religion, nationality, disability, sexuality, class, and body type. We might also include the level of education and other factors of social capital under the umbrella of privilege.
Privilege is inextricably linked to oppression, because, while systems, social norms, and biases are advantages for some people, there are others who are disadvantaged by those same systems, norms, and biases.
For example, think of a flight of stairs. Stairs are in virtually every building with more than one floor and in many outdoor spaces. It is generally assumed that people have the physical ability to walk up the stairs to access higher floors. However, a person with a physical disability that makes them unable to walk upstairs must contend with the assumption that everyone who needed to get to the second floor would have bodies that could use the stairs. The design of buildings that privileged some bodies contributed to the oppression of others.
Some of the most common defenses against privilege refer to the validity of personal achievement and personal struggles. People want to have total ownership of their achievements and may resist attributing aspects of their success to unearned advantages. Similarly, people may feel as though privilege somehow invalidates the reality of the challenges they faced. This is not the case. Having privilege does not necessarily mean that someone hasn’t struggled; however, those struggles can’t be attributed to the oppression of aspects of their identity that are privileged. And often privilege makes an individual’s struggles easier to overcome than they would have been otherwise.
For example, if a student who speaks English as a first language and a student who speaks English as a second language are both taking the same test, the test may be very difficult even without a language barrier. The first student may have studied very hard, lost sleep, and struggled while taking the test. The second student may have studied just as hard, lost just as much sleep, but the language barrier of having to mentally translate during the exam adds a level of difficulty that the first student did not have to navigate. This doesn’t mean that the first student didn’t earn an “A,” nor does it in any sense take away from the hard work they put into preparing for the exam. However, it does mean that their privilege allowed for them to take the test without the additional obstacle of having to translate.
A PERSON’S ABILITY TO SPEAK A CERTAIN LANGUAGE CAN ALSO DETERMINE HIS OR HER POSITION IN THE SPECTRUM OF PRIVILEGE.
Fluency in English is also recognised as a corollary of other forms of privilege which is also something I cannot deny. However, when understanding a person’s language privilege in a country like India, English speaking privilege has to be contextualized.
OUR COUNTRY IS ONE WITH A LOT OF DIVERSITY AND WE WOULD ALL BE MUCH BETTER OFF RECOGNISING IT FOR WHAT IT IS, RATHER THAN TRYING TO HOMOGENISE IT.
Among the Privileges I hold are
Caste Privilege: I had no idea what my caste was until my eight class. I had never been affected by it, and hence, I was oblivious to it. This is the clearest way privilege works – by rendering itself invisible. Being unaware of my caste privilege was the clearest symptom of my caste privilege. I will never have my admission and progress in university doubted or dismissed because of affirmative action policies. My achievements will be lauded as a result of my hard work, my caste privilege never being taken into account, while any achievements by lower-caste peers will be ignored in favour of scoffing at their reservation category. My family’s upper-caste privilege has allowed me easy access to education. With even my grandfather holding a degree, I never had to doubt the fact that I would receive the best education possible. I have never gone to school and made to feel like I don’t belong, been asked to clean toilets because of my last name, or been stigmatised to the point of suicide.
Class Privilege: My caste privilege certainly lends itself to my class privilege, as the two intersect widely – 93% of Dalits live below the poverty line. I have the luxury of never going hungry and being able to take education for granted. I have the luxury of not immediately getting a job after graduation – I can take as much time as I need to “figure it out” and “follow my heart” (all implicitly class-tinted truisms). I can walk into malls or restaurants with watchmen not treating me with suspicion and disrespect, mobility of access not granted to the lower class.