Discussing the topic of privilege can be uncomfortable, if not outright aggravating for many people. You may wonder how you can be considered “privileged” when you’ve experienced hardships and roadblocks in your life that would suggest otherwise. But when we talk about the “p-word” in the context of sociology, we have to understand that pointing it out is not an ad hominem attack. Nobody is denying your work ethic or accusing you of any wrongdoing–unless of course you willfully use your privilege to oppress others and don’t make any sincere effort to unpack it. Rather, it indicates how mainstream society has favored you over others simply because you possess a more socially desirable attribute.
One of the most well-studied and widely discussed areas of privilege is racial privilege—more specifically, white privilege. I’ve had many conversations with white folks who express that their lives have been anything but “privileged”. Whether they share stories of growing up impoverished or having been the victims of abuse, it is clear that they have experienced some form of oppression; and I think it’s fair to say that most of us have. But oppression does not exist in a vacuum and nor does privilege. You can simultaneously be both privileged in one regard and oppressed in another. And while you may be victim to oppressive systems like poverty or misogyny, you still benefit from your whiteness. Just as I, although I am black and a woman, benefit from being middle-class, abled, educated, and cisgender.
Racial privilege is being able to pinpoint—even if just roughly—where your ancestors originated, without having to take a $100 DNA test. Racial privilege is not having to wonder whether or not your hairstyle or natural texture will be received poorly in a job interview. Racial privilege is when your ethnic group—despite making up 62 percent of the population—has the lowest poverty rate in just about every state. Racial privilege is the fact that figures of color being portrayed as being white is invisible, yet white figures portrayed as people of color is hypervisible.
If we want to have a meaningful understanding of how privilege operates, we have to think of it as a system that extends beyond the individual. While anybody who knows me will attest to my work ethic, I am not naïve to the privileges that have contributed to my achievements—in addition to and not in place of—my ambition. For instance, I was given a lot of social capital as a child. Having an attentive lawyer for a mom taught me how to engage with adults on a sophisticated level at an early age, thus equipping me to make good impressions that would lead to opportunities later in life. My mother wouldn’t have been able to become a lawyer without my grandfather’s Mississippi work ethic, physical ableness, and the charming Coca-Cola smile that earned him a job as a General Motors department manager in the 1960s—a time when black men in managerial roles were outliers.
So many of us become fragile when confronted about our privilege because we internalize it as an accusation. We think we are being cited for gross entitlement or a difficulty-free existence. We need to broaden our understanding of privilege and acknowledge its function as a social inheritance, in addition to its socio-economic connotation. Your possession of privilege is a reflection of societal systems, not your individual character or circumstances.