Because of these differences, every person can experience being privileged. Peggy McIntosh, who is famous for developing and popularizing the theory of privilege, said in an interview for The New Yorker: “I believe is that everybody has a combination of unearned advantage and unearned disadvantage in life. Whiteness is just one of the many variables that one can look at, starting with, for example, one’s place in the birth order, or your body type, or your athletic abilities, or your relationship to written and spoken words, or your parents’ places of origin, or your parents’ relationship to education and to English, or what is projected onto your religious or ethnic background. We’re all put ahead and behind by the circumstances of our birth. We all have a combination of both. And it changes minute by minute, depending on where we are, who we’re seeing, or what we’re required to do.”
Those who are at a disadvantage in certain aspects of their lives can be at an advantage in other ones. A disabled White man is privileged in comparison to an able-bodied Black man through his Whiteness. But the Black man is privileged through his able-bodiedness. A Black man is privileged in comparison to a Black woman, but a Black gay man is less privileged than heterosexual Black woman. Within the LGBTQ community, a gay person is often more privileged than a bisexual person, but the latter is more privileged outside of this community if he or she chooses a partner of the opposite sex. Privilege is elusive: now we have it, now we don’t. It reflects circumstances we find yourselves in, every minute, every second.
People are usually not aware of their privilege, because they take it for granted. That may partially explain why, although everybody has felt underprivileged in some way in their lives (yes, even White heterosexual males have this experience) many of us are unable to relate when somebody else finds him- or herself at a disadvantage. The reason: we simply do not see our own position as advantageous. We very easily dismiss others’ problems as insignificant, or even non-existent, just because we have never experienced what it means to deal with them.
Here are some examples. For a long time feminism was being developed mostly by White women. When non-White women entered the scene and pointed out that that they face different kind of challenges, mainstream feminist community did not want to listen to their stories. When Black women started to join feminist movement, Black men were unhappy because they believed that Black women were abandoning the fight against racism (as if racism and sexism cannot coexist). You can read more about these two examples in books by bell hooks. Or, one can think of some members of gay liberation movement rejecting bisexuals and claiming that the latter undermine the cause by not being able to decide whether they are gay or straight (as if somebody has to be either or).
These are just a few major examples. But people fail to notice each other’s problems every day, in so many different ways. I am sure that each person reading this article can think of a situation when somebody dismissed their complaint as not worthy of their attention. People might have said that they do not believe you. They might have said that it is all your fault. They might have said nothing, and turned away. Remembering such situations might be unpleasant, but hold on to this memory for a moment.
I have recently found a quote online. I am not sure who was the first one to write (or say) these words, but here it goes: “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.” This is the essence of what I want to say here. Same as somebody else might have belittled your problems (remember how it felt), you might be ignoring other people’s fights, just because they are not yours. If you do not have a problem that another person has – you are at an advantage. Denying this advantage is not fair. Examine your privileges, don’t let yourself be unaware of them. This is something that you simply cannot afford doing if you want to live in the world where justice and equality are paramount.
(previously published by http://www.cultnoise.com)