Understanding Privilege – by Kind Communication

KindCommunication.orgRe-posted From: http://KindCommunication.org/2016/01/25/understanding-privilege/

I have been born with a tremendous amount of privilege.  I am a straight white male, who grew up in an upper middle-class, Christian home.  All of these different accidental properties of my identity and upbringing carry with them unearned advantages.  These unearned advantages are called “privilege”.  I do not feel guilty about this, nor should I.  Part of the very definition of “privilege” is “unearned”.  It is merely an accident, chance, that I got this life, and not the life of a lesbian black woman, born in a Muslim home in the projects.

We need to understand the dynamic of privilege, and the corresponding dynamic of oppression, if we are going to make any progress in communicating across racial, class, gender, and sexual orientation lines.  There are many more dimensions of privilege and oppression, but for simplicity I am going to focus on these four dimensions.

Many people who experience privilege shy away from this conversation.  Often out of guilt, fear of being attacked, or fear of being characterized as “bad people”.  But the truth is: if you are white, male, straight, and middle class or above, then you have privilege; and it isn’t your fault.  Being white means that growing up I never experienced racism, I was taught my ethnic group’s history in school, I was always able to socialize with people of my own race, and the heroes in movies were always my same race.  Being male means that growing up I was encouraged to speak up, to take charge, to dream big and reach for the stars, and that I was special.  Being straight means that growing up my sexual preferences were always catered to, and portrayed positively in media, I was not teased or harassed simply because I loved someone of my own gender.  Being raised upper middle class meant that I grew up in a household with lots of books, all my physical needs were met and never in jeopardy, and my family was able to send me to summer camps and support me in participating in extra-curricular activities.

So as you can see, being born with privilege isn’t “bad”…in fact these are all wonderful things.  Things I would want for every person on the planet.  And that’s just the thing, not everyone on the planet gets to have these advantages.

So while privilege in and of itself is not “bad”, being unaware of one’s privilege is in fact destructive.  I as a male was taught to speak up, compete, and win.  I was taught that I was smart and capable, and I was encouraged to be assertive.  If I am not aware of that upbringing, then when I enter into a dialogue with a woman I am more likely to interrupt her, talk over her, and look down on her for not being “strong enough”…or I might look down on her for being “too aggressive” and “not lady like” when she does speak up for herself, and possibly interrupt me.

Those who experience oppression are not angry with the people who are privileged.  They are angry with the system of privilege & oppression.  They are angry about people who are unaware of their privilege, and out of that lack of self-awareness they hurt, ignore, or undermine those around them.  It isn’t wrong for you to have grown up privileged.  But if you don’t get honest about what privilege you grew up with, then your ability to communicate with those who grew up with oppression will be limited.  If you don’t examine how privilege has shaped and molded your behavior and outlook, then you won’t be able to see the ways in which your own behavior ignores, hurts, or undermines the experience of those around you.

Here are some questions to help you get started in exploring what privilege you have:

  1. Is your skin color white?  If so, how has growing up as a member of the “dominant” racial group served you?
  2. Are you male?  If so, what messages did you hear growing up male that encouraged you?
  3. Are you straight?  If so, how has your life been made easier by heterosexual imagery being reflected in the media?
  4. Are you, or were you raised, middle class or above?  If so, what differences did it make in your upbringing that your family had the financial means to create a womb of comfort around you?

Again, it does not help anyone for you to feel guilty or shame for having privilege.  It is okay.  There’s nothing you did to earn these advantages.  But your work now is to become more aware of your privilege, so you can be a better communicator, and a better ally, to those who grew up differently from you.

KindCommunication.org is a project by a close friend of Wiki World Order, Alex Leach. WWO fully supports the study, practice, and teaching of non-violent communication as one of the core solutions which already exists.