Widgets Magazine


On the Margins, Between the Lines: Combating racism by recognizing privilege

Last Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a day that never fails to highlight how little progress we have made on racial inequality since the 1960s. Although this is troubling, it’s hard to know what one person can to do to change things. In some ways, as a white person, it’s doubly hard for me to figure out how to effect change on this issue because, although I might see racism directed towards my friends, it’s not something I really experience myself.


However, I still recognize that it’s a problem and, along with a whole number of other “isms,” it’s an issue on which I would rather be part of the solution. Over the last few years, I’ve become aware of a different way to frame the discussion about racism, one that I have found helpful. This approach situates the white experience fully within the issue and in relation to the experiences of others, giving me a new way to understand both my relationship with racism and the role and responsibility I have in combating it.


This reframing focuses on the idea of understanding one’s privilege. Privilege is the acknowledgement that some groups of people get rights and advantages given to them while others are denied the same rights and advantages. These benefits, especially when talking about issues such as race, are unearned, because no one chooses what racial group they are born into. Examples of white privilege might include being perceived by some as more competent and hardworking than people of most other races and the assumption that your admission to college is based on your qualifications instead of the need to fill an affirmative action quota.


Although I am discussing this in terms of race, this concept applies to a number of issues such as gender, sexual orientation, age, economic status, educational background, gender expression, physical ability and citizenship status. Your level of privilege is not always simple; it may depend on the context, and your privileges in different categories may intersect in nuanced ways. You may be black and thus unprivileged racially or be heterosexual and thus privileged with regard to sexual orientation. Most people belong to some groups with high privilege and some with low. This does not mean that they cancel each other out; rather, they are facets of an identity to be aware of that intersect and shape the ways in which you are able to move through society.


You are probably barely aware of the ways in which your areas of privilege benefit you, because privilege often makes itself invisible to those who have it (on the other hand, it is generally easy to recognize the privilege of others.) If your privilege is in terms of race, part of this is because being white in America is too often considered to be the neutral and universal American experience, when in many ways our society makes it a position of power. This leads to ideas such as white people not having a culture and the ability of whites to deny the fact that people of different races may not share their experience.


Consciously making the effort to recognize privilege and understand how it shapes your life (and the lives of those around you) allows you to combat these invisible assumptions that help to maintain the racial hierarchy that we live in. Recognizing that you are privileged means, in part, becoming aware that your lived experience is not a baseline normality; it is one of heightened advantage. Knowing that we live our lives within a structure of racism refutes the idea that when people of racial privilege do well it is solely because of their personal effort, and also refutes the notion that when people of color do not do as well it is because they didn’t try hard enough.


And yes, acknowledging your privilege is a hard thing to do. It’s hard to admit that in the United States, a country that places so much emphasis on hard work and individuality, structural racism may have played a greater role in determining where you are in life than your own effort. We all want to believe that we have earned the opportunities we’ve had. This is why discussions about privilege often inspire guilt or defensiveness; however, recognizing privilege is not about blame. Just as someone born into low privilege did not choose it, neither did someone born into high privilege. But denying and ignoring your own privilege only means that you are further allowing the system of inequality to disenfranchise others. So don’t pretend it doesn’t exist; instead, acknowledge and embrace the fact that you understand you have privilege. Then it becomes a tool, helping you own your role in combating racism and increasing your ability to play a part in dismantling the racist hierarchy in which we live.


Continue the discussion with Jamie at jamiesol “at” stanford “dot” edu.