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Privilege: What it is and How to Use it

 

While some EDI terms are used primarily by diversity professionals, privilege is that rare term that is also used in everyday conversation. However, usage and understanding are not the same.  The term privilege is often used incorrectly.  Moreover, even when it’s used correctly, people miss its meaning because they focus on the emotions caused by the word rather than its definition.  But help is on the way!  Read on for an explanation of privilege and advice on how privilege can be used to help others.

 

What is Privilege?

To understand privilege, we must first understand culture.  As mentioned in a recent post, culture is “the shared values, beliefs, symbols, attitudes, languages, products, artifacts, aesthetic standards, and styles of communication that have been created and transmitted by a group over time.”  For instance, celebrating the Fourth of July could be considered part of U.S. culture.

In most nations, there is a dominant culture.  The group or groups that decide what is culturally acceptable are members of the dominant culture.  In the United States, the dominant culture is generally shaped by people who are wealthy, White, straight, Christian, and male.  Therefore, the desires of these groups are usually reflected in U.S. history, laws, and culture.  Members of the dominant culture can expect that history will reflect their story and that the nation’s laws with protect them.

Though privilege can be defined in many ways, at its simplest, privilege means membership in a group or groups that define the dominant culture. Members of the dominant culture have privilege because they do not have change much – or at all – to meet cultural expectations.  Culture rises up to meet them.  On the other hand, those who belong to non-dominant groups must change the way they speak, behave, dress, and travel to survive and succeed.  Their history is largely omitted from the dominant narrative.  They cannot expect that the laws will protect them from harm caused by the dominant group.

 

Who Has Privilege?

Some bristle at the term “privilege” because it summons images of wealthy people leisurely sipping drinks while relaxing at a country club.  For these people, a person is not privileged unless they belong to every single dominant group.  This belief is incorrect.

While wealthy, white men certainly hold privilege in the United States, privilege isn’t limited to that group.  We are all members of many different groups.  As a result, nearly every person in the U.S. belongs to one of the dominant groups.  Therefore, nearly every person in the nation is privileged relative to some other person.

Consider the following examples: Sam, a wealthy, white man, is gay.  Sam’s wealth and whiteness give him privilege, but his sexual orientation does not.  Joan, an African-American attorney, goes to church every Sunday with her husband and children.  While Joan lacks both white privilege and male privilege, her sexual orientation, education, and religion place her in the dominant class.  Frank is white, male, and straight, but he is also a recent immigrant who only speaks Polish.  His language and immigration status place him just outside the dominant culture.

The takeaway here is that privilege is a moving target.  Who is privileged will change depending on the topic being discussed.

 

Isn’t Privilege a Bad Thing?

Due in part to assumptions and misinformation, the term privilege is sometimes met with scorn and skepticism.  Privilege is a bad thing when it is used to support inequality.  But privilege need not be a bad thing.  Because we are all privileged in some manner, we all can use our privilege to help others.  By doing so, we use our power to create a more just and equitable society.

Returning to our above example, Sam can use his wealth and white male privilege to support women, poor people, and people of color.  Joan can use her privilege to advocate for LGBT rights in her church.  Frank can use his privilege to speak up for immigrants of color who face deportation.  Privilege is not a bad thing when it is used to help others.

 

How Can I Use my Privilege to Help Others?

Privilege must be used carefully.  Using one’s privilege to help others can be rewarding but can cause many problems if done in the wrong way.  Here are a few tips on the proper use of privilege.

  • Do NOT assume that you know the issues better than the people that you are trying to help.  You don’t.  Behave as a student, not a teacher.
  • Do NOT act as if the people you are helping could not survive without your help.  This attitude is harmful because it reinforces the idea that the dominant group is best.
  • DO widen your social network.  Learning and speaking to others about their lives will provide you with insight and motivation.
  • DO believe others when they speak.  Arguing, defending, or providing your experiences are not helpful.  You may not have had a bad experience with the police, but you won’t learn what that experience is like unless you listen with an open mind.

 

Conversations about privilege can be difficult and emotional.  But they need not be if everyone understands how privilege can be used to create a better society.  To help yourself and your organization better understand privilege, enroll in the Equity Toolkit e-courses.  The Equity Toolkit is an interactive, four-course online series containing essential, research-based concepts on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.

DeEtta Jones

DeEtta Jones is an invited speaker, equity, diversity and inclusion strategy consultant and author with more than twenty years of experience working with people from around the world to on personal effectiveness and building workforce capacity.

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