When we talk about privilege what we’re really talking about is power. Specifically, who has the power to move through the world with as little resistance as possible. And who has the power to shape their life and, potentially, the lives of others. While being called “privileged” is often interpreted as having been given more than others, it’s also accurate to say that privilege describes having fewer obstacles to face and overcome.
In my experience, when talking about privilege online or offline, inevitably someone will defend themselves against taking accountability for their privilege with, “You don’t know me; you don’t know what I’ve been through.” Which is only half true. While I might not know the intimate details of their history and personal life, I do know that they are white, middle class, educated, healthy, able-bodied, and thin. Not much needs to be said for those privileges to be revealed.
Their defensiveness comes from a feeling that to acknowledge their privilege is to negate the hardships that they’ve had to endure. Which isn’t the case at all. Privilege and struggle can coexist. All anyone who is talking about privilege is trying to illuminate is that, however difficult life may be, we need to be aware of the ways that the system is stacked in our favour. If not to be more empathetic towards those with less privilege then to use our privilege more skillfully.
The truth about privilege is that we are using it to get what we want, whether we are being conscious and intentional about it or not. That’s how privilege works. Like oppression, privilege is systemic and, thus, bigger than any one individual. Because of this, we don’t get to decide what’s considered privileged. All we have the ability to do is figure out what privileges we have—according to society—so we can put them to work creating the change we want to see.
I am a white, middle class, educated, healthy, able-bodied, and thin individual. And while I deal with mental health issues, have experienced various kinds of trauma, am queer, identify as female/non-binary, and have had my share of financial struggles, I am still extremely privileged. My whiteness, access to healthcare, and ability to advocate for myself means that I have never doubted that I will be okay. This is not the case for everyone.
One of the reasons I take so many risks in my life and creative work is because I see that as a productive and generous way to use my privilege. However many times I fail to accomplish what I set out to do, I know that I’ll always have options to help me get on my feet again. So, in many ways, it feels like my responsibility to push these boundaries; I have the luxury of knowing—in large part thanks to my privilege—that something will catch me if and when I fall.
There’s nothing wrong with having privilege. We were all born into this world with no say in how we’d be treated by capitalism and the patriarchy. As grown humans, however, we have a whole lot of say in how we use our privilege to shape the future. We can choose to defend ourselves with, “I too have struggled!” or we can lead with, “I am able to use my privilege to create change so I’m going to do that.” And only one of those options is going to get us where we want to go.
So, how are you using your privilege to create change?