Many of us have privilege and often we don’t even see it. I extracted a section from my book, You Can’t Fix What You Can’t See, entitled: It Is Hard to See Your Own Privilege. It’s quite short, but I’ve been told it’s very effective at helping people see their own privilege. I wanted to share this with you because it is so insidious and has been around for so long, many consider it ‘normal.’ Seeing your privilege, is just the first step. Once you see it, then realize that others don’t have it. You however, because of your privilege are in a prime position to offer it to others. Next time you see someone without privilege being harassed, looked down on, or being subjected to oppression, chose to speak up. Loudly, if needed. This is one of the ways we can help.
It is Hard to See Your Own Privilege
Privilege is something that puts you at an advantage over others. Of course, the reverse of privilege is disadvantage or hardship. One of the best ways to get your head around privilege is to first consider what privileges you don’t have. So, grab a piece of paper and write down what privileges you do not have. For my list: I am not a white man, I am not rich, I do not have political power. Go ahead, make your list.
Now list the areas where you have privilege. Mine are: I am middle-class, I have three college degrees, I am white, I live in the United States. Your turn. In what areas do you have privilege? Make your list.
Now, go back into your history. Are there times in your life when you lacked some of the privileges that you now have? This recollection could also include a time when you were temporarily marginalized. Say, a man attending a women's conference. For me, there was a time when our family didn’t have much money, didn’t have a TV, etc. Now, just in case you are so lucky and have always had privilege, pick an acquaintance who is not so lucky and use their situation to prepare a list of privileges that they have gained but didn’t use to have. Make your own list of privileges you don’t have that have marginalized you.
How did your lack of privilege make you feel? Were there things you were denied or went without? This should include items where you have had to change your behavior because of lack of privilege. My kids gave me a great example of this the other day. We had been out in the sun for several hours and we were all hot, tired, and thirsty. We stopped in a store and I grabbed a bottle of water from the cooler and opened it and took a long delicious sip. As I stopped drinking, all three of my kids were staring at me and they said, “You can’t do that, Mom! You haven’t paid for it yet.” True, I was exerting my white middle-class adult privilege. It’s obvious from looking at me that I can pay for it. Note that a kid does not have this privilege. Store clerks cannot “see” that they have money, so you can get easily get called out for doing what I did. How does that make you feel when that happens?
One of the real advantages of privilege is you don’t have to think about it—at all. People without privilege always have to think about it. Can I speak up in this meeting? Can I walk into this building or room?
I had a very interesting experience. After growing up in California, I went to high school in Alabama. We lived in the country and were close to the geographic line demarking whether you went to the county high school or the city high school. We were technically on the county high school side, so I went to the county high school for two years, but when it was time for me to take Algebra II, I was informed that the county high school would not be teaching it because not enough students wanted to take it. My mom thought, “No problem, we’ll just enroll you in the city high school.” But we were in for a big surprise: I didn’t have this privilege! I couldn’t just enroll in another school.
This transfer would not be simple. Apparently, many white students applied to attend the city high school because it had a higher percentage of white students. I actually had to attend a “hearing” to request my transfer. While there, I, a fifteen-year old kid, was accused of trying to transfer so that I could get into the “whiter school.” I had to tell them it was not a matter of color, but one of math. I planned to go to college and get an engineering degree, and I really had to take Algebra II to get into college. They finally conceded only after they checked with the county high school and confirmed that they were not planning to teach the class. This memory was one of my first encounters with the bizarre constructs we create around privilege and race. It left an indelible impression on me.
There are innumerable people who are not afforded privilege. And, unlike me, they can’t change it. Hopefully, this story can help you see how hard it is to see a problem when you don’t realize that you have privilege in that area. You typically don’t see it until the privilege is removed.
Now that You See It, Choose to Use It
I was in my local Target a few month ago. The lines appear quite long with our physical distancing. While waiting in line, I watched a couple of security guards following this woman around in the store. She was a bit disheveled looking and quite possibly was homeless. But I didn’t know her, so who was I to assume her circumstances? The security guards continued to follow her around, rather menacingly. Finally, she stopped and screamed at them, “Stop Following Me Around!” My heart really went out to her. They were harassing her. For no reason that was apparent to me.
After everything that has happened recently, I now feel ashamed for keeping my mouth shut. My mom taught me to “mind my own business” and “don’t stick your nose where it doesn’t belong.” Well, I am going to discard that advice now.
It is our business when we see others being treated poorly, to speak up. Even if it is simply to state what you see.
The next time I witness that kind of behavior, I will be speaking up. “Why are you harassing this woman by following her around, why don’t you just let her do her shopping?”
If each one of us with privilege chooses to speak up, we become a powerful force in pointing out the inequities. Once they are seen, then we can set about fixing them. After all, You Can’t Fix What You Can’t See.