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What is privilege and why should I “check it”?

Privilege is unearned advantages — parts of your identity that you did not ask for, nor necessarily even want. Privilege is part of each person’s life experience. Privilege is recognized within many aspects of each of us: race, gender identity, sexuality, ability status, economic advantage, education, and others.

For example, I am a straight, white woman with a bachelor’s degree, who is pursuing a master’s degree. I have the privilege of being white, able-bodied, neurotypical (although I have ADD; but being able to see a doctor regularly and take medicine for it is another privilege), from a background of financial means. I have never experienced homelessness or food insecurity. I have the ability to talk to a manager or supervisor who is likely also white and will treat me with respect. I can speak and people will listen, because of my privilege. I can turn on Netflix and easily find characters on shows who look like me. Note that I did not ask for any of these aspects of my identity, nor can I control how society views them.

Privilege does NOT mean my life has been without difficulties. I lack the same privileges as white men. I lack the privilege of a person who is married; I pay higher taxes. (But I am able to get married and always have been.) I am Jewish, a religion that lacks privilege in our Christian-based society. I am over 40, which, in our youth-obsessed culture, means I lack the privilege of a 25yo woman. Yet I still have more privilege than a 25yo Black transgender woman. 

I have not examined my privilege in this way for about two years now, when I took a class on diversity and oppression. In that class, we learned about the invisible backpack that each person carries, which includes their privilege or lack thereof. I found that most of my life provides unearned privilege.

While looking at privilege just once is useful, thinking about it regularly can help you become a better ally to those who lack privilege. Aspects of privilege are regularly changing. Before I renewed my license last week, I rarely considered the privilege of being able to stand in line at the tag agency at 9am, when many people are working and are therefore unable to obtain a driver’s license. I am not followed in stores, nor do I need to keep my receipt because I have never been asked to prove that I purchased something. I can address both those issues with a manager, because of my privilege.

What privileges do you have? What privileges do you lack? How can you use your unearned advantages to help others who lack those advantages? These are all ways of “checking your privilege,” and will open up your eyes to the many aspects of identity which we all embody.