walk into your privilege

Jessica Jackson, Washington International '17

When individuals understand the power they hold, a diverse community can begin to cherish and fully appreciate all its members, and begin to become more united. (Published: 2017)

Participants of Class 21 of Operation Understanding DC, a year long pro-gram comprised of 12 African American and 12 Jewish juniors, lead a “privilege walk” exercise at Bishop McNamara. The walk helps students visualize the effects of privilege.
Photo by Operation Understanding DC

I am a student at an independent school and not any student; I am black and female. A twice marginalized identity. The concept of privilege is one that I have heard discussed time and time again. It has repeatedly been denied and tossed to the side as another social justice topic that we can bring up and do nothing about. There is no better place to discuss equal rights than among your peers. We hear a lot about white privilege and cis privilege, but while some of us are throwing these terms around, others have no idea what it means. So, what is privilege exactly?

Privilege is the concept that society grants certain groups of people special advantages. At the end of the day, privilege boils down to invisible power. And from what I know about those who have power, they generally do not enjoy talking about it. But most of those who have this invisible power either don’t recognize it or are denying it.

Which leaves some of us asking, why? What is so hard about recognizing and acknowledging the fact that privilege exists and that you may have some? Maybe for those with privilege, it is easier to assume that everyone is on a level playing field because they do not see or experience the marginalization. It often goes unnoticed how one individual can be provided with a direct advantage completely at the expense of another.

What continues to be made clear is that privilege goes unnoticed until those who have it are willing to listen, learn and take action. It is crucial that we discuss the structures that create privilege and what we can do to dismantle those structures. We need to attack this subject collectively because doing so individually is not enough.

Structures of White Privilege: Institutionalized Racism and Discrimination

People today benefit from institutionalized racism and discrimination. Here are a few facts. A University of Chicago study found that if you have a “black sounding name” on your resume, and also very similar credentials as a white counterpart, you have half the chance of a “call back” than your white counterpart. Black students are 18% of the preschool population but make up half of the suspensions (National Public Radio). When we look at the prison system, black youth are 18 times more likely than white youth to be given life without parole (American Civil Liberties Union,

ACLU). According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, “African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months).” The American Psychological Association found that black youth make up nearly 60% of children in prisons.

Different Forms of Privilege

Yes, privilege comes in different forms; there is not just white privilege. There are lots of different kinds of privileges out there that you may not realize you benefit from. This includes: white privilege, cis privilege, gender privilege, christian privilege, socioeconomic privilege, ability privilege. Just to name a few. The reality of white privilege can be one that is difficult to confront for some of us. Others can see this privilege as bright as day and (like me) are dying to talk about it. Have you ever heard someone say, “Oh, I don’t see color”? That in itself is an act of white privilege because some people have to deal with or think about the reality of having a darker complexion every day of their lives. Someone who has the choice to be blind to racial issues isn’t helpful. Just because you “can’t see color” does not mean that it is not there.

What Does Privilege Mean or Look Like?

Privilege is benefitting from institutionalized discrimination (racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, islamophobia, anti-semitism) and is heightened by not being aware of one’s unfair benefitting.

In this section, I will delve into two types of privilege: white and cis privilege. However, I encourage you to learn more about how certain identifiers benefit you with the questions on the sidebar.

If you can say whatever you’d like without fearing that someone will take that as you speaking for your whole race, then that is an act of white privilege. If it never crosses your mind that when a member of your community commits an act of terror or violence, she or he won’t be recognized by the media as a “terrorist”. If you regularly read about people in history class that look like you, or read books by people in English class that look like you. If you’d never think twice about wearing a certain hairstyle (i.e.; dreadlocks, braids, naturally curly hair) for fear of not getting a job. If you have never been offended by someone exclaiming “wow you speak really well!” that is white privilege. If you haven’t considered or thought of these examples, that is white privilege.

Just as a white person may find it hard to recognize or notice their white privilege, cis gendered people may find it difficult to recognize cis privilege. “Cis” is a term used for people whose gender identity matches the sex that they were given at birth, as opposed to transgender

individuals whose sex does not match their gender identity or expression. If you’ve never had to second guess what bathroom you go into, or explain to others “why you have the gender identity you do,” as if it is a choice, that is cis privilege. If you have not considered these instances before, that is cis privilege.

Oppression and privilege go hand in hand. Not only are the privileged usually the oppressors but this can be viewed from many different perspectives. For example, how much you speak, or feel that you can speak, in a classroom may be a sign of privilege. Because of the prevalent gender roles in our society, boys are more encouraged to speak during class than girls, which leaves female students with less speaking time. Furthermore, boys speak 9 times as often as girls, according to Joan E. Greve of Time in 2014. This is an example of how if you are privileged, you cannot experience privilege without causing oppression of some sort.

'Awareness is the first step'

Having privilege does not mean that you are immune to life’s misfortunes. It merely shows how you might be at an advantage due to an identifier you do or do not possess. Awareness is the first step in combating discrimination because it allows one to think critically about one’s participation, however unintentional, in discriminatory systems and cultures. Think of it this way, it


is like being in a race with two other people; let’s call them Daniel and Darius. Daniel, instead of starting at the start line with Darius, has a line all his own that puts him that much closer to the finish line. Darius sees this and tries to communicate the inequity but Daniel tells Darius that he just needs to work harder and stop being so lazy. Get the picture?

We’re still talking about privilege because no one seems to be doing anything about it. Minorities don’t need to “work harder” to meet others at the finish line. Although as a society we strive for equality and giving everyone the exact same thing, we need to focus on equity because everyone needs different supports in order to achieve equal access.

So, if you get sucked into another “privilege” conversation don’t tune out. Tune in. Because this is a problem that we all have to solve. We can be the generation that takes those first steps to doing it. Take a moment and reflect, if you are in a privileged position be ready. Be ready to listen, listen, listen and process.