How Can We Learn from Privilege?

Once you understand it, we have to know how to talk about privilege. Find out here.

Conversations about privilege tend to elicit two kinds of responses from people with privilege: denial or well-intentioned urgency to “do something” about it. Both responses avoid the discomfort of squaring up to the deeper causes and effects of privilege. And if we don’t understand how privilege functions, we won’t know how to interrupt the cycle. 

From my own limited perspective as a white male, I’ll share three considerations for how individuals with privilege might begin to respond, but first we need to get clear on what is at stake. 

Having privilege doesn’t mean that I somehow am cheating in the game of life, as if I haven’t worked hard along the way. The ultimate cost of privilege is that experiences that for me are just “a day in the life” might be a matter of life and death for others. 

I bumped into this cold, hard fact during grad school one night when I was up late on campus for a class event. It was a bitter late winter evening and I was in a hurry to get home, so I decided to run through the parking lot while carrying my backpack. I made it to my car. I got in and I drove safely home. There was, for me, nothing out of the ordinary about what happened that evening. There would be no story to tell at all if weren’t for what happened to a fellow student around that same time. 

Not long before my uneventful late-night run, another student was walking back to his dorm and realized he had forgotten to bring his student ID with him, so he called campus security to help him get in. When they arrived, they insisted he wasn’t a student here and refused to let him in. Unlike me, that young man was black. No one was physically harmed that evening, but all too often situations like this escalate tragically when individuals with privilege fail to understand how their own privilege influences their perceptions of and reactions to others. 

Having privilege means, among other things, getting the benefit of the doubt in being perceived as competent, honest, and non-threatening. Privilege isn’t just a matter of individual perception or bias; it is embedded into the fabric of our social structures with very real mental, physical, financial, and cultural consequences. So, how can individuals and groups with privilege begin to respond?

First, we need to realize that facing up to our own relative privilege takes time and hard work. One college educator warns individuals with privilege to not rush too quickly to “do something” about privilege. Hasty, well-intentioned action that lacks deeper understanding can be a form of avoidance and further perpetuates the structures of privilege. Allies need to be reminded that they get to choose when to pick up or put down the fight for justice and inclusion, unlike those who experience first-hand a particular form of marginalization.  

Philosopher George Yancy invites white people to “tarry” with the unease of their racial privilege. Yancy isn’t advocating that people should wallow in self-guilt. Rather, the pervasiveness of privilege calls for a rediscovery of healthy forms of lament as a step toward deeper reconciliation and healing. 

Second, recognize that allyship doesn’t mean being a “voice for the voiceless.” It’s not possible to fully speak for someone else, and doing so keeps the other voiceless. Think instead of the power of tuning your ear to the voices of those who go too frequently unheard.

Finally, be attentive to the access that your own particular privilege grants you. Look around the room and across the table. Are there voices and experiences that are underrepresented? How can you use your privilege so that others might enjoy the same abilities and freedoms? 

Identifying and acknowledging privilege is a crucial step, but it marks only a beginning, not the destination. We learn the road by walking it and by walking with others whose journeys have been different from our own.

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