As defined through sociocultural standards, privilege is the right or benefit given to some people, but not others. A contextually fluid definition rather than a fixed one, privilege can change and mean something different to an individual in response to the environment or situation.
I think, for a generation assimilated into an ever increasingly competitive world, this is quite important to understand.
As people, and even more so as students, we have been raised in a system where we are encouraged to outdo one another — to think how we can stand out, how we can present our lives as more special, or more worthy, than another’s. We’re living a modernized, standardized, polished and twisted reality of “survival of the fittest,” where the most privileged, the most connected and the most advantaged survive — and those who struggle the hardest are left behind.
And yet, it is important to note that while having privilege doesn’t make an individual immune to life’s hardships, it does give them an unearned advantage in society through their socially defined identity, a nuanced and intersectional identity that is unfairly misrepresented. This, too, is incredibly important in understanding your place in a social context — discussing not only the ways in which privilege puts people at a disadvantage, but how privilege puts your needs as advantaged over someone else’s.
Recently, news about college scandals and questionable donations have covered every front page, screen and topic of conversation. Despite being darkly and comically unsurprising, it should have been another perfect incentive to get people talking about privilege — to question how money, fame, race and class have never failed to play their role as socially stratifying markers, and have yet again disgraced the foundations upon which equal education and opportunity should have been standing.
Social worker Kathleen Ebbitt, who writes for Global Citizen, states that “we have the revolutionary ability to transform the political, economic and social environment by recognizing that injustice creates a societal imbalance that negatively impacts everyone.” We need to realize that the only way in which we can attempt to break the multiple forms of systemic oppression within our societies is to intentionally set aside time to think about justice, and whether or not our values are aligning with the ways in which we live our lives.
“Checking your privilege” is an acknowledgement that you have it better than someone else. It is an opportunity to question how you got this advantage, an opportunity to discuss its fairness and a chance to encourage that you are not a proponent of its continuation. Encouraging students, teachers and peers alike to discuss their understanding of privilege is the only way we can truly highlight how influential it is in discerning quality of life for many people.
There is no more destructive a plan than to simplify and justify the inevitability of privilege in a society. As writer Clay Shirky tweeted, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”
There is also no more powerful a tool than dialogue. This ability to speak, to encourage rhetoric and pedagogy that highlights what is being misheard, misrepresented or ignored, is the metaphorical wrecking ball that we need to crumble institutionalized oppression. Conversation regarding privilege becomes powerful because it is accessible, and framed toward steps for liberation.
Hannah Gulko is a junior majoring in human development.