Using Privilege for the Greater Good
Producer of DC Diary Podcast
My privilege is something that I’ve always been aware of. In part, that’s because my mom has always been a sticker for precise language. When asked, “How are you?” she doesn't reply, “fine, thanks.” She typically replies, “exceptional, as always.” She never responds to an apology with “it’s fine,” she responds with “I accept your apology,” so as not to dismiss the original act. And when I was younger, whenever I or one of my 4 siblings would remark about how lucky we were to have gotten a new toy or to go to summer camp, she would correct us, “you’re not lucky, you’re privileged.” I think she did this for 2 reasons: first, see aforementioned note about being a sticker, and second, to ensure we understood that we hadn’t done anything ourselves to deserve the things our parents provided to us. We had just been born into the right family.
My privilege, as an able-bodied upper-middle class straight cis white woman, touches every aspect of my life. At work I can be assertive and firm, without being labeled aggressive or angry. I can expect that police will help me, rather than harass me. If I’m pushy enough, I can usually catch a break from customer service (even from airlines). And I can be fairly certain that I won’t be denied housing or a job or basic necessities because of how I look or who I am.
Privilege, for the most part, is a passive experience. It is so easy to accept the good things that come my way and not question why or how they came to me (for my white readers, I know you’ll understand reference to “The Bubble” on 30 Rock). But non-privilege is anything but a passive experience. And as privileged people, we should be at least matching, if not exceeding, the level of engagement required of non-privileged people to simply move through the world. And our efforts should be going toward trying to level the playing field. Here are some ways we can do that:
- Listen to understand. This should be a no-brainer, but in case it’s not, listen to the people around you when they tell you about their experiences. When your friends and colleagues and acquaintances express frustration or dismay about an event or situation, ask why. Then listen.
- Do your own homework. After you’ve listened, follow up on your own. Don’t rely on marginalized people to point you to readings to further your understanding. Google it on your own. (But if you are offered some recommendations, make sure you check them out.)
- Speak up in circles of privilege. When you hear hurtful language or people expressing problematic views, speak up, especially when you’re in a circle of privilege. You can be a conduit. Use your status to teach.
- Don’t be a bystander. When you see wrongdoing, use your privilege to step in. Protect those who you see being harassed on the street or ignored by customer service.
- Be an advocate. When you hear of jobs or speaking opportunities or networking events, recommend others to fill those roles.
- Bring someone with you. Don’t close the door behind you. When you have important opportunities or you make it into a room, bring someone with you.
- Don’t be stingy. You didn’t do anything to deserve your privilege, so remember that those with less privilege didn’t do anything to deserve it either. If someone reaches out to you for advice or assistance, be generous.
- Put your money where you mouth is. Make donations to organizations that help marginalized people. Especially if your money came from generational wealth that you yourself didn’t earn.
- Do it because it’s right. Not because someone is watching.
Recognizing my own privilege allows me to, at once, be proud of where I came from and the life my parents worked to provide me, and understand that society doesn’t reward everyone equally for equal effort. It is my job to recognize and engage with my privilege in a way that makes the world better, for the greater good.