Use of Privilege

With my prior post being about personal accountability, I’ve been thinking about a couple of specific accountability things I can be putting into place in my life. I want to call them out and name them because I think the more people who decide to hold themselves accountable in these (or similar) ways the better our world will be.

I need to be paying attention to who is missing in my social circles.

I participate in many communities both online and off. I have church, neighborhood, writer, and friend communities to name a few off of the top of my head. I’m glad to see people and connect. However I need to take responsibility not just to connect with the people who show up for a community event, but also to notice who does NOT show up. If my neighborhood is 5% Latino, but the neighborhood potluck is all white, that is an indicator of something amiss. Did my Latino neighbors not get invited? Did they decide not to come because they’ve felt awkward and out of place at prior events?  I’ve used a neighborhood potluck example, but the principle applies to the demographics of all communities. If no black people are in your online knitters forum, it isn’t because black people don’t like knitting. Something is keeping them out or pushing them out.

 In order to help my communities be more inclusive I need to first notice who is missing, try to identify why they are missing, then address the problems that the answers to those “why” questions reveal. More attention might need to be paid to barriers to entry: extending invitations, giving people rides, offering to cover expenses, changing entry requirements that accidentally (or intentionally) filter for race/disability/poverty. The other thing answers to “why” reveal is the ways that people decide to opt out of a community rather than participate. My responsibility is to help people feel welcome when they do show up. This requires education of existing community in how not to make people feel “othered”  I have a responsibility to correct my friends when they commit microaggressions against marginalized people. (Like asking “where are you REALLY from?” to a non-white person who was born an American citizen. The intention is to engage with the other person’s heritage and have a conversation, but the person ends up feeling like their right to be present was questioned and invalidated.) The work is on me to figure out how to open my communities to include more people.

A step I’ve taken to address the “who is missing” problem in my life is via social media. I realized that my friend and follow lists had a demographic skew that matched me. I decided to expand my lists. I followed/friended some new people. My goal wasn’t to get them to notice me or give me approval. Instead my job was to observe their lived reality. See how their life differs from mine. I found it  particularly helpful when I found someone who is willing to speak out loud the ways that being disabled/lgbtq/autistic/white/female/trans/black/single/childless affects their life. It was uncomfortable at times. Sometimes they say things that make me feel defensive. I’ve practiced sitting with that discomfort for a bit to figure out why I feel defensive. Often I discover that ingrained prejudice is the reason I’m uncomfortable, which means I have learning and adjusting to do. Other times I decide that my discomfort is based in cultural differences. Sometimes the person is wrong and I’m responding to that. In all cases I’m learning to understand modes of being that are different than mine.

Being mindful of my use of privilege

Privilege and disadvantage are not mutually exclusive. Lives are complex. People are complex. Most of us are simultaneously privileged along one axis of our lives and disadvantaged along another axis. This is often why people get upset when you try to explain privilege to them, because the things which have made their lives difficult are very obvious to them, but the things which made their lives easier are invisible.

Knowing that I have both privilege and disadvantage, I am responsible for my use of privilege in overcoming my disadvantages. I had multiple kids with special needs and I had to advocate for them in the school to get them resources and additional help. Every time I did so, I was leveraging my privileges of being a white, college-educated, articulate, middle class, blonde woman. I was listened to, and my kids usually got either the help I requested or some other equivalent help. With every interaction I met administrators who listened to me and actively engaged with finding solutions for my kids. I know from talking with other parents of kids at the same schools, not everyone got that same treatment.

There is no fault in my use of privilege to help my kids. The fault comes if I use my privilege to claim a scarce resource that my kid only sort-of needs but that would be vital to someone else. That is opportunity hoarding. The best use of privilege is when I use mine to make something easier to access for everyone who follows, not just for my kids. If I apply “my kid needs this, lets make sure everyone can have it.” Unfortunately, the school system is often set up in ways that encourage competition thinking rather than cooperative community. Parents hoard resources and bend rules to help their kids get ahead. This same behavior is observable other communities, workplaces, areas of our lives that are not school based. We can use our privilege in ways that advantage “our” people without self-examining that “our.”

So I’m going to pay attention to any time I ask for individualized attention or for a guideline to be bent in my favor. Does my action simply advantage me in a way that is harmless to others? Does it give me an advantage which is then not available for someone else? Does it make life more difficult for someone who comes after me? Or does my action make the path easier for those who follow?

In my small actions I can make the world a little bit better. I have to try.

2 thoughts on “Use of Privilege”

  1. Thank you for this series! Conversations and efforts like this are hard but are the only way we’re going to make the world (and its countries) the place we all want to live; this series, and the thoughts and goals behind it, are shining a light towards a better world (from this straight, white, cis, middle-class male’s perspective, anyway).

    1. I’m glad you’re finding it interesting/ useful. And yes, we need to have the difficult conversations. They’re a lot less difficult if we have them in consistent small pieces over time instead of waiting for a crisis where everyone is upset. Thanks for reading!

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