Checking My Privilege

By: Hadassah Penn  |  August 27, 2018
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By Hadassah Penn, Opinions Editor

My parents paid for my education: check. I have never lived below the poverty line: check. I am white: check.

I’ve taken countless quizzes on Buzzfeed. “Are you introverted or extroverted, based on your sweatshirt choices?” “Choose five desserts and we’ll tell you your biggest flaw!” They’re fast, breezy, and baseless enough that I can easily disregard them if I don’t like the results. There’s one particular quiz, however, that I took ages ago, and still think about often, titled, “How Privileged Are You?”

The quiz consists of a single checklist. Click any of the approximately one hundred statements that apply to you, and Buzzfeed will calculate your level of privilege. I have never been homeless. I studied abroad. My parents are still married. Check, check, check.

As it turns out, I am very privileged.

This is something that I always knew, at least on some level. I only realized recently that my lack of coherent thought on the matter is a direct result of my upbringing: that is, a life that doesn’t necessitate examination of privilege is, by nature, privileged.

It is important here to differentiate privilege from lack of gratitude. My parents raised me to be grateful, and I am, every day. I am grateful to them, to my friends, to God, to everybody who has even the smallest positive effect on my life, and I am likewise grateful for every necessity and luxury that I have earned or have been provided.

Privilege is an entirely different beast. Privilege is what I benefit from every day, but have never asked for or done anything to earn. It’s entirely a result of my personal circumstances: my race, my place and year of birth, my family and life experiences. Privilege is what some people, including myself, are lucky enough to benefit from on a daily basis, while others are not. It implies neither an easy life nor a lack of struggle. It’s not something to brag about – and definitely not something to complain about.

So, how to deal with privilege? At first, I felt ashamed of it. I felt guilty about my education, my opportunities, and my lucky, sheltered, little life. Eventually, though, I realized that this approach is not helpful, and actually harmful. By refusing to acknowledge the ways that society favors me, I am effectively invalidating those who struggle with the lack of that favor.

This, I believe, is the key: I did nothing to earn my privilege, and I can’t remove it – and, perhaps selfishly, nor would I want to. What I can do is acknowledge it. I can acknowledge that, to a certain extent, elements of my life are made easier based on circumstances outside of my control, and that these benefits that I receive are a symptom of a larger societal issue of inequality.

And what then? As Roxane Gay writes on privilege in her book Bad Feminist, “You don’t necessarily have to do anything once you acknowledge your privilege. You don’t have to apologize for it. You need to understand the extent of your privilege, the consequences of your privilege, and remain aware that people who are different from you move through and experience the world in ways you might never know anything about.”

In other words: humility and empathy. Privilege erects barriers between groups of people. With humility, I recognize that privilege is not an expression of worth, but of birth. I did not earn my privilege, and it does not make me better than any other human. With empathy, I acknowledge those whose lives are different from my own.

I am no longer guilty; I am no longer ashamed. What I am is honest, and that is what I ask of you: whatever your life circumstances may be, there are elements of your life in which you are more privileged than others. Allow yourself to recognize these elements, and don’t take them for granted. Then, with mind and heart open, take what you have and pay it forward. Use the opportunities and gifts that you have been given, and use your privilege to make a positive difference in this world.

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