Today I was fortunate to have a really interesting conversation with a friend, one that led me to revise privilege and how we hold it in our lives.
I think the biggest weakness we have as humans is that we often focus on the negative, the hard things in life and what doesn’t go our way. The reason why I point this out, is that it is, this focus that makes it difficult to see our own privilege.
I would argue that almost everyone carries a certain amount of privilege. Now there are a lot of factors that can diminish privilege that is held. What I mean by that is that our lives are made up of so many different factors, from relationships with parents/family, natural intelligence, race, financial stability, access to education, etc. Each factor can have a positive or negative affect in how privilege shows up in our lives.
It is my belief is that Privilege shows up when any of these factors has a positive effect on your life. How I rationalize that, is that if another has the opposite (meaning negative) experience than it can be said that you hold privilege in that aspect of life in comparison to them. Because as I mentioned above we can focus on the negative, we can be blind or down play these positives/privileges. What we value also plays into our ability to recognize privilege, because if we don’t value a factor in life than we won’t consider it a positive.
I will give you a personal example, which I return to a lot because I really struggled and can still struggle with sometimes. I grew up with quite privileged in terms of financial stability (including things such as ‘luxury’ vacations), access to health care (living in Canada with parents that were medical professionals), access to education, enrolled in a second language (bilingual schooling), and access to extra curricular programs (i.e. swimming).
All these privileges were things that I was actually able to see as privileges, but they felt diminished because they were tainted with negative experiences. The luxury vacations almost always included major blow out fights between my parents or fear of abuse. The extra curricular was about physical excellence/speed, I did not possess natural talent to really excel, I ended up not being able to keep up with my peers (so I ended up feeling less than). That doesn’t mean these aren’t still privileges, it just means they didn’t always feel that way. The were enabled by financial stability but affected my emotional instability.
One thing my whole life I never recognized as a positive was that my two parents were alive. They still are alive and now I can recognize it as a positive, because my children will get to know them. The reason why I didn’t feel the same growing up is because my parents for lack of tact, were not the kindest. It’s not that they aren’t good people; both my parents are caring for the community, they are generous, they are intelligent but they were and continue to be verbally and/or emotionally abusive. I grew up being told I was going to end up a failure, I was lazy, I was fat; nothing I did was ever good enough. I was just lucky that anyone would want to be around me. Even now, knowing and recognizing their behaviours for what they are. Their own reactions to their upbringings and their trauma, it doesn’t make it easier to manage my perception all the time.
Where I lacked empathy or recognition was for people that lost a parent and that said I was so lucky to have both of mine. I would honestly romanticize what it would be like because I would rationalize that people would at least feel sorry for me, or the parent that was living, often loved their child so deeply they would do anything for them, something I did not have with my own. On the outside I looked like I had everything but that’s not how it felt. Even now in my most insecure moments I take this for granted, because I have the inner voice (sounds just like my mother) telling me I am worthless, I’m just lucky anyone loves me, or I’ve wasted my life.
I think thoughts like this are often what hangs us up in showing gratitude towards and recognizing our privilege. The reality is that every experience makes us who we are; this includes the positive and the negative. This is a really hard thing to get across without being slightly insensitive because your feelings do matter but so does perspective.
It is important to recognize and understand another’s perspective. It is also super important to think critically about your situation and be honest about the comparison with anothers’. In my case, I don’t know what it is like to lose a parent but I can acknowledge that it is hard, it is a loss, no matter the situation. What my desire is, is that someone can see my situation and understand it was tough too. The reality is that my romanticized version of parent loss (warped) is probably not accurate. The same can be said for my financially stable, nuclear upbringing. As a result of my experiences I believe I value love, acceptance, and support more than money.
I am going to admit that when I first encountered the message Black Lives Matter, in 2013, the thought went through my head that they would get more support if they said All Lives Matter. I didn’t understand that was something that should already be clear. Of course all lives matter, that was never in question, the lives that were being treated as though the weren’t important were Black ones. It shouldn’t have been necessary for the BLM movement to point this out but they had to. They had to because we (the collective we) did not recognize the privilege we held in never having to worry about our safety the same way Black people do.
In my privileged upbringing I was never educated on Residential Schools. I had no idea they existed until I was 27/28 – so 2010 or so. In my ignorance I viewed Indigenous people as full of privilege because they had so many opportunities to better themselves for free, like post secondary education being free or that companies would reserve spots to hire Indigenous people. I didn’t know what they had collectively gone through or the generational trauma present. I do now and feel like we can still do more to assist in reconciliation and must educated our youth early in order to do better.
My privilege allowed for ignorance, it made it so I was blind to a massive injustice in my country. My privilege made me naive to even the continued rights being undermined such as clean water to drink (highly recommend looking up Indigenous access to clean water). My privilege gave me blinders to how much harder it could actually be.
I was speaking with a friend recently that has a family member applying to medical school. They made a comment about the biggest thing working against their family was that they were white. I had to pause before responding and didn’t feel like I could get out exactly why that thought process was so small and wrong. This family is wealthy, their member had every possible advantage from being set up with volunteering in hospitals through connections, to travelling abroad to work in the medical services field, to never having to work while at school because they didn’t have to make their own money. These are all privileges that are way more likely to help you succeed in getting the marks needed to enter medical school and for successfully completing. Not to mention graduating debt free, that will enable them to grow their own wealth from the start without having to worry about loan repayment, interest, etc. on top of opening a practice, hours of work, and so on.
Another example was someone I know explaining that they were given the directive to hire someone that was either female or a visible minority for a position where the most experienced candidates were white males. The factor they didn’t take into account is the reason why white males had the most experience was that historically their organization hired males first, that it has racist roots and that people have a natural tendency to promote those that seem most like them. All these factors made it so that of course, white males would have more experience than any other demographic. The reality is experience doesn’t make for the best candidate always.
Privilege is a funny thing – it’s something that in order to recognize requires identifying our values. Any time I have had a hard time recognizing my privilege, I, upon better reflection/critical thinking, have been able to see that it is because I don’t always value that privilege. Me not valuing something doesn’t mean it isn’t real. I don’t value status or power, but in being white I have held it.
I know myself and my values, this gives me the privilege of resilience. That resilience gives me the freedom to walk away from things that don’t align with my values, things that make me feel untrue to my integrity. I live in a country that has universal health care, good public education, democracy and free market – all these make my life privileged. There is of course the need to recognize choices and that we all make them; that some end up positive and some negative. What we need to realize is that choice in itself is a privilege. Lots of people go through life with limited choices because circumstances that happen. Privilege is not having to overcome a circumstance.
I had another discussion with a friend where they said travel is a right and I had to argue that it is not. Travel is a luxury. Rights are things that we as humans, as a society should ensure are available to everyone not just a few. My friend’s inability to recognize that her frequent travel was something that most can’t afford is an example of her lack of reflection.
Recently it has come out that we won’t be able to open our fitness facilities for at least a month. I saw a thread that was debating the need for sports in the lives of our youth. That the lack of access was hurting the mental health of our youth. One comment was saying that in the area they service with work, sports/extra curricular were not always accessible to youth, that this was something for the more affluent/wealthy. The point being that those that don’t always have access to such programs aren’t always suffering, that it is a luxury, that those who are normally privileged should recognize that and maybe reflect on their positions.
The idea being that there are bigger problems than not being able to travel and do sports. These are privileges. It’s not that they aren’t important or that access to them don’t vastly improve our lives, because it does, but that not everyone has the same access, the same positives, so they are privileges.
I see the importance of recognizing privilege because it makes us unpack what we value and sort out things based on what is a right and what is a privilege. I have had conversations with people that believe travel is a right but that health care is not. That access to guns is a right but strong public education is not. The reason I bring this up is that those stances are based on privilege held that if something happened to these individuals they would be ok. Whether it financially, medically or in the justice system because of the social position. This is reality.
What I hope is that after reading this, you will take a few minutes to unpack your own privilege. Do the critical thinking. Make the comparisons. Find the things to be grateful for. Decide what you believe are fundamental human rights. I know it’s a lot. I do a lot of spinning but I have to tell you that acknowledging life as it is, and doubling down on what is important has given me resilience.